Cherry Picking? Or Making Better Trees?

Everyone knows that cherry picking is bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. Cherry picking means showing non-representative examples to give a false impression of the quality of a product, an argument, or a scientific finding. In educational research, for example, cherry picking might mean a publisher or software developer showing off a school using their product that is getting great results, without saying anything about all the other schools using their product that are getting mediocre results, or worse. Very bad, and very common. The existence of cherry picking is one major reason that educational leaders should always look at valid research involving many schools to evaluate the likely impact of a program. The existence of cherry picking also explains why preregistration of experiments is so important, to make it difficult for developers to do many experiments and then publicize only the ones that got the best results, ignoring the others.

However, something that looks a bit like cherry picking can be entirely appropriate, and is in fact an important way to improve educational programs and outcomes. This is when there are variations in outcomes among various programs of a given type. The average across all programs of that type is unimpressive, but some individual programs have done very well, and have replicated their findings in multiple studies.

As an analogy, let’s move from cherries to apples. The first delicious apple was grown by a farmer in Iowa in 1880. He happened to notice that fruit from one particular branch or one tree had a beautiful shape and a terrific flavor. The Stark Seed Company was looking for new apple varieties, and they bought his tree They grafted the branch on an ordinary rootstock, and (as apples are wont to do), every apple on the grafted tree looked and tasted like the ones from that one unusual branch.

blog_4-16-20_applepicking_333x500 Had the farmer been hoping to sell his whole orchard, and had he taken potential buyers to see this one tree, and offered potential buyers picked apples from this particular branch, then that would be gross cherry-picking. However, he knew (and the Stark Seed Company knew) all about grafting, so instead of using his exceptional branch to fool anyone (note that I am resisting the urge to mention “graft and corruption”), the farmer and Stark could replicate that amazing branch. The key here is the word “replicate.” If it were impossible to replicate the amazing branch, the farmer would have had a local curiosity at most, or perhaps just a delicious occasional snack. But with replication, this one branch transformed the eating apple for a century.

Now let’s get back to education. Imagine that there were a category of educational programs that generally had mediocre results in rigorous experiments. There is always variation in educational outcomes, so the developers of each program would know of individual schools using their program and getting fantastic results. This would be useful for marketing, but if the program developers are honest, they would make all studies of their program available, rather than claiming that the unusual super-duper schools represent what an average school that adopts their program is likely to obtain.

However, imagine that there is a program that resembles others in its category in most ways, yet time and again gets results far beyond those obtained by similar programs of the same type. Perhaps there is a “secret sauce,” some specific factor that explains the exceptional outcomes, or perhaps the organization that created and/or disseminates the program is exceptionally capable. Either way, any potential user would be missing something if they selected a program based on the mediocre average achievement outcomes for its category. If the outcomes for one or more programs are outstanding (and assuming costs and implementation characteristics are similar), then the average achievement effects for the category should no longer be particularly relevant, because any educator who cares about evidence should be looking for the most effective programs, since no one would want to implement an entire category.

I was thinking about apples and cherries because of our group’s work reviewing research on various tutoring programs (Neitzel et al., 2020). As is typical of reviews, we were computing average effect sizes for achievement impacts of categories. Yet these average impacts were much less than the replicated impacts for particular programs. For example, the mean effect size for one-to-small group tutoring was +0.20. Yet various individual programs had mean effect sizes of +0.31, +0.39, +0.42, +0.43, +0.46, and +0.64. In light of these findings, is the practical impact of small group tutoring truly +0.20, or is it somewhere in the range of +0.31 to +0.64? If educators chose programs based on evidence, they would be looking a lot harder at the programs with the larger impacts, not at the mean of all small-group tutoring approaches

Educational programs cannot be replicated (grafted) as easily as apple trees can. But just as the value to the Stark Seed Company of the Iowa farmer’s orchard could not be determined by averaging ratings of a sampling of all of his apples, the value of a category of educational programs cannot be determined by its average effects on achievement. Rather, the value of the category should depend on the effectiveness of its best, replicated, and replicable examples.

At least, you have to admit it’s a delicious idea!

References

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.

 

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

 

Preschool: A Step, Not a Journey

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So said Lau Tzi (or Lau Tzu), the great Chinese scholar who lived in the 6th century BC.

For many years, especially since the extraordinary long-term outcomes of the Perry Preschool became known, many educators have seen high-quality preschool as an essential “first step” in a quality education. Truly, a first step in a journey of a thousand miles. Further, due to the Perry Preschool findings, educators, researchers, and policy makers have maintained that quality preschool is not only the first step in a quality education, but it is the most important, capable of making substantial differences in the lives of disadvantaged students.

I believe, based on the evidence, that high-quality preschool helps students enter kindergarten and, perhaps, first grade, with important advantages in academic and social skills. It is clear that quality preschool can provide a good start, and for this reason, I’d support investments in providing the best preschool experiences we can afford.

But the claims of most preschool advocates go far beyond benefits through kindergarten. We have been led to expect benefits that last throughout children’s lives.

Would that this were so, but it is not. The problem is that randomized studies rarely find long-term impacts. In such studies, children are randomly assigned to receive specific, high-quality preschool services or to serve in a control group, in which children may remain at home or may receive various daycare or preschool experiences of varying quality. In randomized long-term studies comparing students randomly assigned to preschool or business as usual, the usual pattern of findings shows positive effects on many measures at the end of the preschool year, fading effects at the end of kindergarten, and no differences in later years. One outstanding example is the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (Lipsey, Farran, & Durkin, 2018). A national study of Head Start by Puma, Bell, Cook, & Heid (2010) found the same pattern, as did randomized studies in England (Melhuish et al., 2010) and Australia (Claessens & Garrett, 2014). Reviews of research routinely identify this consistent pattern (Chambers, Cheung, & Slavin, 2017; Camilli et al., 2009; Melhuish et al., 2010).

So why do so many researchers and educators believe that there are long-term positive effects of preschool? There are two answers. One is the Perry Preschool, and the other is the use of matched rather than randomized study designs.

blog_4-9-20_preschoolers_500x333

The Perry Preschool study (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997) did use a randomized design, but it had many features that made it an interesting pilot rather than a conclusive demonstration of powerful and scalable impacts. First, the Perry Preschool study had a very small sample (initially, 123 students in a single school in Ypsilanti, Michigan). It allowed deviations from random assignment, such as assigning children whose mothers worked to the control group. It provided an extraordinary level of services, never intended to be broadly replicable. Further, the long-term effects were never seen on elementary achievement, but only appeared when students were in secondary school. It seems unlikely that powerful impacts could be seen after there were no detectable impacts in all of elementary school. No one can fully explain what happened, but it is important to note that no one has replicated anything like what the Perry Preschool did, in all the years since the program was implemented in 1962-1967.

With respect to matched study designs, which do sometimes find positive longitudinal effects, a likely explanation is that with preschool children, matching fails to adequately control for initial differences. Families that enroll their four-year-olds in preschool tend, on average, to be more positively oriented toward learning and more eager to promote their children’s academic success. Well-implemented matched designs in the elementary and secondary grades invariably control for prior achievement, and this usually does a good job of equalizing matched samples. With four-year-olds, however, early achievement or IQ tests are not very reliable or well-correlated with outcomes, so it is impossible to know how much matching has equalized the groups on key variables.

Preparing for a Journey

Lao Tzi’s observation reminds us that any great accomplishment is composed of many small, simple activities. Representing a student’s educational career as a journey, this fits. One grand intervention at one point in that journey may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to ensure the success of the journey. In the journey of education, it is surely important to begin with a positive experience, one that provides children with a positive orientation toward school, skills needed to get along with teachers and classmates, knowledge about how the world works, a love for books, stories, and drama, early mathematical ideas, and much more. This is the importance of preschool. Yet it is not enough. Major make-or-break objectives lie in the future. In the years after preschool, students must learn to read proficiently, they must learn basic concepts of mathematics, and they must continue to build social-emotional skills for the formal classroom setting. In the upper elementary grades, they must learn to use their reading and math skills to learn to write effectively, and to learn science and social studies. Then they must make a successful transition to master the challenges of secondary school, leading to successful graduation and entry into valued careers or post-secondary education. Each of these accomplishments, along with many others, requires the best teaching possible, and each is as important and as difficult to achieve for every child as is success in preschool.

A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but what matters is how the traveler negotiates all the challenges between the first step and the last one. This is true of education. We need to find effective and replicable methods to maximize the possibility that every student will succeed at every stage of the learning process. This can be done, and every year our profession finds more and better ways to improve outcomes at every grade level, in every subject. Preschool is only the first of a series of opportunities to enable all children to reach challenging goals. An important step, to be sure, but not the whole journey.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

References

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, S. (2009). Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3), 579-620.

Chambers, B., Cheung, A., & Slavin, R.E. (2016) Literacy and language outcomes of comprehensive and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 18, 88-111..

Claessens, A., & Garrett, R. (2014). The role of early childhood settings for 4-5 year old children in early academic skills and later achievement in Australia. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29, (4), 550-561.

Lipsey, M., Farran, D., & Durkin, K. (2018). Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45 (4), 155-176.

Melhuish, E., Belsky, J., & Leyland, R. (2010). The impact of Sure Start local programmes on five year olds and their families. London: Department for Education.

Puma, M., Bell, S., Cook, R., & Heid, C. (2010). Head Start impact study: Final report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). Lasting differences: The High/Scope Preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23 (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation No. 12) Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

 Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

COVID-19 and School Closures: Could Summer Help?

If there is one educational benefit of the otherwise dismal experience of closing virtually all of America’s schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: I’ll bet parents are developing a lot of respect for teachers. I’m hearing a lot about parents finding out that online lessons are no substitute for capable, in-person teachers.

Because of the essential health need to reduce contacts among students and school personnel, schools all over the U.S. have closed. School leaders are scrambling to provide on-line coursework. It is difficult everywhere to go from zero to online in a very short time, but in schools in high-poverty areas, where many or most students lack home computers or reliable internet access, it is well-nigh impossible. But even if every student had a working computer and internet access, there seems to be widespread use of computerized worksheets, and other uninspiring content. In some schools and districts, in which online work is already well used and computers are universally available, the situation is surely better, but even there, online all day every day is no substitute for in-person teaching. Very conscientious and self-motivated students, the kind who already use Khan Academy just for fun, are probably thriving, but such students constitute a small minority, even in the finest schools.

School closures are likely to extend into May, leaving little if any of the regular school year for things to return to normal. Two states, Kansas and Virginia, have already announced that schools will not re-open before the end of the year, and others will surely follow.

The Summer Solution

In light of the realities we face, I think most schools are struggling to teach all of their children during the school closures. Parents are doing their best, as are some students, but nationwide, trying to keep schools going as they always have, except online, is not a satisfying solution.

I have an alternative solution. It has two simple steps.

  1. As soon as feasible, declare schools to be on break. Instant vacation.
  2. When it is safe to open schools, do so. Hold an in-person two-month session, starting (let’s say) on June 1 and running through the end of July.

During the instant vacation, provide parents and students with a menu of engaging activities that are fun, engage students’ energies and curiosity, and optional. These could focus on science, social studies, writing, art, music, and other subjects often blog_4-2-20_masks_500x343given short shrift during the school year.  These would be facilitated by teachers; in my experience, every school and district has many teachers who are crazy about one or more topics that they rarely get to talk about in school.  Teachers may be Civil War reenactors, world travelers, art experts, amateur musicians, or published writers, even if those are not the topics they teach.  In three days, max, any school district could find extraordinary people with fierce passions for something they want to share with kids. Students might be given a choice of activities, and they might choose to do none at all. It’s vacation, after all. The reason to have these activities is to give students shut in at home useful and interesting things to do. I’m sure there are loads of great online activities already out there that are rarely used because of the lack of time for such activities in the regular school year. Imagine any of the following, facilitated by teachers who love these topics:

  • Online trips to faraway places or to periods of history
  • Online book clubs in which students could choose topics they’d like to read about and then discuss age-appropriate books on them with others from all over their school, district, or state.
  • Science clubs, in which students could explore topics of their choice in groups from all over. One interesting topic: epidemiology.  Science clubs could find out everything there is to know about space travel, or the science of music, or the science of sports.
  • Writer’s workshops, in which kids from all over could enroll in groups working on writing their own mystery stories, fantasy stories, sports stories, or biographies of famous people.  That’s how the Bronte sisters learned to write, shut in in small-town Yorkshire, surrounded by poverty and disease.  They wrote stories with and for each other, throughout their childhoods.
  • Art or music appreciation, history, or techniques
  • How students can get jobs and internships (in normal times)
  • Post-secondary options for secondary students

I think you get the idea. Trying to cover all the usual school subjects in the usual way, but online, is sure to be boring and ineffective for most students. But on vacation, shut in students could select learning activities to do not for a grade, not under pressure from parents or teachers, but to satisfy their own curiosity.

When the crisis is over, presumably in the summer, students could return to school and resume their usual lessons, with in-person teachers.  I’m sure there would be practical difficulties, but I’m willing to bet that this could work, perhaps in some places, perhaps in many. At least it seems worth a try!

Photo credit: zhizhou deng / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Science of Reading: Can We Get Beyond Our 30-Year Pillar Fight?

How is it possible that the “reading wars” are back on? The reading wars primarily revolve around what are often called the five pillars of early reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Actually, there is little debate about the importance of comprehension, vocabulary, or fluency, so the reading wars are mainly about phonemic awareness and phonics. Diehard anti-phonics advocates exist, but in all of educational research, there are few issues that have been more convincingly settled by high-quality evidence. The National Reading Panel (2000), the source of the five pillars, has been widely cited as conclusive evidence that success in the early stages of reading depends on ensuring that students are all successful in phonemic awareness, phonics, and the other pillars. I was invited to serve on that panel, but declined, because I thought it was redundant. Just a short time earlier, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) had covered essentially the same ground and came to essentially the same conclusion, as had Marilyn Adams’ (1990) Beginning to Read, and many individual studies. To my knowledge, there is little credible evidence to the contrary. Certainly, then and now there have been many students who learn to read successfully with or without a focus on phonemic awareness and phonics. However, I do not think there are many students who could succeed with non-phonetic approaches but cannot learn to read with phonics-emphasis methods. In other words, there is little if any evidence that phonemic awareness or phonics cause harm, but a great deal of evidence that for perhaps more than half of students, effective instruction emphasizing phonemic awareness and phonics are essential.  Since it is impossible to know in advance which students will need phonics and which will not, it just makes sense to teach using methods likely to maximize the chances that all children (those who need phonics and those who would succeed with or without them) will succeed in reading.

However…

The importance of the five pillars of the National Reading Panel (NRP) catechism are not in doubt among people who believe in rigorous evidence, as far as I know. The reading wars ended in the 2000s and the five pillars won. However, this does not mean that knowing all about these pillars and the evidence behind them is sufficient to solve America’s reading problems. The NRP pillars describe essential elements of curriculum, but not of instruction.

blog_3-19-20_readinggroup_333x500Improving reading outcomes for all children requires the five pillars, but they are not enough. The five pillars could be extensively and accurately taught in every school of education, and this would surely help, but it would not solve the problem. State and district standards could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but would not solve the problem. Reading textbooks, software, and professional development could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but it would not solve the problem.

The reason that such necessary policies would still not be sufficient is that teaching effectiveness does not just depend on getting curriculum right. It also depends on the nature of instruction, classroom management, grouping, and other factors. Teaching reading without teaching phonics is surely harmful to large numbers of students, but teaching phonics does not guarantee success.

As one example, consider grouping. For a very long time, most reading teachers have used homogeneous reading groups. For example, the “Stars” might contain the highest-performing readers, the “Rockets” the middle readers, and the “Planets” the lowest readers. The teacher calls up groups one at a time. No problem there, but what are the students doing back at their desks? Mostly worksheets, on paper or computers. The problem is that if there are three groups, each student spends two thirds of reading class time doing, well, not much of value. Worse, the students are sitting for long periods of time, with not much to do, and the teacher is fully occupied elsewhere. Does anyone see the potential for idle hands to become the devil’s playground? The kids do.

There are alternatives to reading groups, such as the Joplin Plan (cross-grade grouping by reading level), forms of whole-class instruction, or forms of cooperative learning. These provide active teaching to all students all period. There is good evidence for these alternatives (Slavin, 1994, 2017). My main point is that a reading strategy that follows NRP guidelines 100% may still succeed or fail based on its grouping strategy. The same could be true of the use of proven classroom management strategies or motivational strategies during reading periods.

To make the point most strongly, imagine that a district’s teachers have all thoroughly mastered all five pillars of science of reading, which (we’ll assume) are strongly supported by their district and state. In an experiment, 40 teachers of grades 1 to 3 are selected, and 20 of these are chosen at random to receive sufficient tutors to work with their lowest-achieving 33% of students in groups of four, using a proven model based on science of reading principles. The other 20 schools just use their usual materials and methods, also emphasizing science of reading curricula and methods.

The evidence from many studies of tutoring (Inns et al., 2020), as well as common sense, tell us what would happen. The teachers supported by tutors would produce far greater achievement among their lowest readers than would the other equally science-of-reading-oriented teachers in the control group.

None of these examples diminish the importance of science of reading. But they illustrate that knowing science of reading is not enough.

At www.evidenceforessa.org, you can find 65 elementary reading programs of all kinds that meet high standards of effectiveness. Almost all of these use approaches that emphasize the five pillars. Yet Evidence for ESSA also lists many programs that equally emphasize the five pillars and yet have not found positive impacts. Rather than re-starting our thirty-year-old pillar fight, don’t you think we might move on to advocating programs that not only use the right curricula, but are also proven to get excellent results for kids?

References

Adams, M.J. (1990).  Beginning to read:  Thinking and learning about print.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.

National Reading Panel (2000).  Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.  Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Slavin, R. E. (1994). School and classroom organization in beginning reading:  Class size, aides, and instructional grouping. In R. E. Slavin, N. L. Karweit, and B. A. Wasik (Eds.), Preventing early school failure. Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.

Slavin, R. E. (2017). Instruction based on cooperative learning. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning and instruction. New York: Routledge.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S.M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998).  Preventing reading difficulties in young children.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

 

After the Pandemic: Can We Welcome Students Back to Better Schools?

I am writing in March, 2020, at what may be the scariest point in the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. We are just now beginning to understand the potential catastrophe, and also to begin taking actions most likely to reduce the incidence of the disease.

One of the most important preventive measures is school closure. At this writing, thirty entire states have closed their schools, as have many individual districts, including Los Angeles. It is clear that school closures will go far beyond this, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

I am not an expert on epidemiology, but I did want to make some observations about how widespread school closure could affect education, and (ever the optimist) how this disaster could provide a basis for major improvements in the long run.

Right now, schools are closing for a few weeks, with an expectation that after spring break, all will be well again, and schools might re-open. From what I read, this is unlikely. The virus will continue to spread until it runs out of vulnerable people. The purpose of school closures is to reduce the rate of transmission. Children themselves tend not to get the disease, for some reason, but they do transmit the disease, mostly at school (and then to adults). Only when there are few new cases to transmit can schools be responsibly re-opened. No one knows for sure, but a recent article in Education Week predicted that schools will probably not re-open this school year (Will, 2020). Kansas is the first state to announce that schools will be closed for the rest of the school year, but others will surely follow.

Will students suffer from school closure? There will be lasting damage if students lose parents, grandparents, and other relatives, of course. Their achievement may take a dip, but a remarkable study reported by Ceci (1991) examined the impact of two or more years of school closures in the Netherlands in World War II, and found an initial loss in IQ scores that quickly rebounded after schools re-opened after the war. From an educational perspective, the long-term impact of closure itself may not be so bad. A colleague, Nancy Karweit (1989), studied achievement in districts with long teacher strikes, and did not find much of a lasting impact.

In fact, there is a way in which wise state and local governments might use an opportunity presented by school closures. If schools closing now stay closed through the end of the school year, that could leave large numbers of teachers and administrators with not much to do (assuming they are not furloughed, which could happen). Imagine that, where feasible, this time were used for school leaders to consider how they could welcome students back to much improved schools, and to blog_3-26_20_teleconference2_500x334provide teachers with (electronic) professional development to implement proven programs. This might involve local, regional, or national conversations focused on what strategies are known to be effective for each of the key objectives of schooling. For example, a national series of conversations could take place on proven strategies for beginning reading, for middle school mathematics, for high school science, and so on. By design, the conversations would be focused not just on opinions, but on rigorous evidence of what works. A focus on improving health and disease prevention would be particularly relevant to the current crisis, along with implementing proven academic solutions.

Particular districts might decide to implement proven programs, and then use school closure to provide time for high-quality professional development on instructional strategies that meet the ESSA evidence standards.

Of course, all of the discussion and professional development would have to be done using electronic communications, for obvious reasons of public health. But might it be possible to make wise use of school closure to improve the outcomes of schooling using professional development in proven strategies? With rapid rollout of existing proven programs and dedicated funding, it certainly seems possible.

States and districts are making a wide variety of decisions about what to do during the time that schools are closed. Many are moving to e-learning, but this may be of little help in areas where many students lack computers or access to the internet at home. In some places, a focus on professional development for next school year may be the best way to make the best of a difficult situation.

There have been many times in the past when disasters have led to lasting improvements in health and education. This could be one of these opportunities, if we seize the moment.

Photo credit: Liam Griesacker

References

Ceci, S. J. (1991). How much does schooling influence general intelligence and its cognitive components? A reassessment of the evidence. Developmental Psychology, 27(5), 703–722. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.27.5.703

Karweit, N. (1989). Time and learning: A review. In R. E. Slavin (Ed.), School and Classroom Organization. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Will, M. (2020, March 15). School closure for the coronavirus could extend to the end of the school year, some say. Education Week.

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Florence Nightingale, Statistician

Everyone knows about Florence Nightingale, whose 200th birthday is this year. You probably know of her courageous reform of hospitals and aid stations in the Crimean War, and her insistence on sanitary conditions for wounded soldiers that saved thousands of lives. You may know that she founded the world’s first school for nurses, and of her lifelong fight for the professionalization of nursing, formerly a refuge for uneducated, often alcoholic young women who had no other way to support themselves. You may know her as a bold feminist, who taught by example what women could accomplish.

But did you know that she was also a statistician? In fact, she was the first woman ever to be admitted to Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, in 1858.

blog_3-12-20_FlorenceNightingale_500x347Nightingale was not only a statistician, she was an innovator among statisticians. Her life’s goal was to improve medical care, public health, and nursing for all, but especially for people in poverty. In her time, landless people were pouring into large, filthy industrial cities. Death rates from unclean water and air, and unsafe working conditions, were appalling. Women suffered most, and deaths from childbirth in unsanitary hospitals were all too common. This was the sentimental Victorian age, and there were people who wanted to help. But how could they link particular conditions to particular outcomes? Opponents of investments in prevention and health care argued that the poor brought the problems on themselves, through alcoholism or slovenly behavior, or that these problems had always existed, or even that they were God’s will. The numbers of people and variables involved were enormous. How could these numbers be summarized in a way that would stand up to scrutiny, but also communicate the essence of the process leading from cause to effect?

As a child, Nightingale and her sister were taught by her brilliant and liberal father. He gave his daughters a mathematics education that few (male) students in the very finest schools could match. She put these skills to work in her work in hospital reform, demonstrating, for example, that when her hospital in the Crimean War ordered reforms such as cleaning out latrines and cesspools, the mortality rate dropped from 42.7 percent to 2.2 percent in a few months. She invented a circular graph that showed changes month by month, as the reforms were implemented. She also made it immediately clear to anyone that deaths due to disease far outnumbered those due to war wounds. No numbers, just colors and patterns, made the situation obvious to the least mathematical of readers.

When she returned from Crimea, Nightingale had a disease, probably spondylitis, that forced her to be bedridden much of the time for the rest of her life. Yet this did not dim her commitment to health reform. In fact, it gave her a lot of time to focus on her statistical work, often published in the top newspapers of the day. From her bedroom, she had a profound effect on the reform of Britain’s Poor Laws, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which her statistics showed to be counterproductive.

Note that so far, I haven’t said a word about education. In many ways, the analogy is obvious. But I’d like to emphasize one contribution of Nightingale’s work that has particular importance to our field.

Everyone who works in education cares deeply for all children, and especially for disadvantaged, underserved children. As a consequence of our profound concern, we advocate fiercely for policies and solutions that we believe to be good for children. Each of us comes down on one side or another of controversial policies, and then advocates for our positions, certain that our favored position would be hugely beneficial if it prevails, and disastrous if it does not. The same was true in Victorian Britain, where people had heated, interminable arguments about all sorts of public policy.

What Florence Nightingale did, more than a century ago, was to subject various policies affecting the health and welfare of poor people to statistical analysis. She worked hard to be sure that her findings were correct and that they communicated to readers. Then she advocated in the public arena for the policies that were beneficial, and against those that were counterproductive.

In education, we have loads of statistics that bear on various policies, but we do not often commit ourselves to advocate for the ones that actually work. As one example, there have been arguments for decades about charter schools. Yet a national CREDO (2013) study found that, on average, charter schools made no difference at all on reading or math performance. A later CREDO (2015) study found that effects were slightly more positive in urban settings, but these effects were tiny. Other studies have had similar outcomes, although there are more positive outcomes for “no-excuses” charters such as KIPP, a small percentage of all charter schools.

If charters make no major differences in student learning, I suppose one might conclude that they might be maintained or not maintained based on other factors. Yet neither side can plausibly argue, based on evidence of achievement outcomes, that charters should be an important policy focus in the quest for higher achievement. In contrast, there are many programs that have impacts on achievement far greater than those of charters. Yet use of such programs is not particularly controversial, and is not part of anyone’s political agenda.

The principle that Florence Nightingale established in public health was simple: Follow the data. This principle now dominates policy and practice in medicine. Yet more than a hundred years after Nightingale’s death, have we arrived at that common-sense conclusion in educational policy and practice? We’re moving in that direction, but at the current rate, I’m afraid it will be a very long time before this becomes the core of educational policy or practice.

Photo credit: Florence Nightingale, Illustrated London News (February 24, 1855)

References

CREDO (2013). National charter school study. At http://credo.stanford.edu

CREDO (2015). Urban charter school study. At http://credo.stanford.edu

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Cooperative Learning and Achievement

Once upon a time, two teachers went together to an evening workshop on effective teaching strategies. The speaker was dynamic, her ideas were interesting, and everyone in the large audience enjoyed the speech. Afterwards, the two teachers drove back to the town where they lived. The driver talked excitedly with her friend about all the wonderful ideas they’d heard, raised questions about how to put them into practice, and related them to things she’d read, heard, and experienced before.

After an hour’s drive, however, the driver realized that her friend had been asleep for the whole return trip.

Now here’s my question: who learned the most from the speech? Both the driver and her friend were equally excited by the speech and paid equal attention to it. Yet no one would doubt that the driver learned much more, because after the lecture, she talked all about it, thinking her friend was awake.

Every teacher knows how much they learn about any topic by teaching it, or discussing it with others. Imagine how much more the driver and her friend would have learned from the lecture if they had both been participating fully, sharing ideas, perceptions, agreements, disagreements, and new ideas.

So far, this is all obvious, right? Everyone knows that people learn when they are engaged, when they have opportunities to discuss with others, explain to others, ask questions of others, and receive explanations.

Yet in traditionally organized classes, learning does not often happen like this. Teachers teach, students listen, and if genuine discussion takes place at all, it is between the teacher and a small minority of students who always raise their hands and ask good questions. Even in the most exciting and interactive of classes, many students, often a majority, say little or nothing. They may give an answer if called upon, but “giving an answer” is not at all the same as engagement. Even in classes that are organized in groups and encourage group interaction, some students do most of the participating, while others just watch, at best. Evidence from research, especially studies by Noreen Webb (2008), find that the students who learn the most in group settings are those who give full explanations to others. These are the drivers, returning to my opening story. Those who receive a lot of explanations also learn. Who learns least? Those who neither explain nor receive explanations.

For achievement outcomes, it is not enough to put students into groups and let them talk. Research finds that cooperative learning works best when there are group goals and individual accountability. That is, groups can earn recognition or small privileges (e.g., lining up first for recess) if the average of each team member’s score meets a high standard. The purpose of group goals and individual accountability is to incentivize team members to help and encourage each other to excel, and to avoid having, for example, one student do all the work while the others watch (Chapman, 2001). Students can be silent in groups, as they can be in class, but this is less likely if they are working with others toward a common goal that they can achieve only if all team members succeed.

blog_3-5-20_coopstudents_500x333

The effectiveness of cooperative learning for enhancing achievement has been known for a long time (see Rohrbeck et al., 2003; Roseth et al., 2008; Slavin, 1995, 2014). Forms of cooperative learning are frequently seen in elementary and secondary schools, but they are far from standard practice. Forms of cooperative learning that use group goals and individual accountability are even more rare.

There are many examples of programs that incorporate cooperative learning and meet the ESSA Strong or Moderate standards in reading, math, SEL, and attendance. You can see descriptions of the programs by visiting www.evidenceforessa.org and clicking on the cooperative learning filter. As you can see, it is remarkable how many of the programs identified as effective for improving student achievement by the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA make use of well-structured cooperative learning, usually with students working in teams or groups of 4-5 students, mixed in past performance. In fact, in reading and mathematics, only one-to-one or small-group tutoring are more effective than approaches that make extensive use of cooperative learning.

There are many successful approaches to cooperative learning adapted for different subjects, specific objectives, and age levels (see Slavin, 1995). There is no magic to cooperative learning; outcomes depend on use of proven strategies and high-quality implementation. The successful forms of cooperative learning provide at least a good start for educators seeking ways to make school engaging, exciting, social, and effective for learning. Students not only learn from cooperation in small groups, but they love to do so. They are typically eager to work with their classmates. Why shouldn’t we routinely give them this opportunity?

References

Chapman, E. (2001, April). More on moderations in cooperative learning outcomes. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

Rohrbeck, C. A., Ginsburg-Block, M. D., Fantuzzo, J. W., & Miller, T. R. (2003). Peer-assisted learning interventions with elementary school students: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 240–257.

Roseth, C., Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (2008). Promoting early adolescents’ achievement and peer relationships: The effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 223–246.

Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Slavin, R. E. (2014). Make cooperative learning powerful: Five essential strategies to make cooperative learning effective. Educational Leadership, 72 (2), 22-26.

Webb, N. M. (2008). Learning in small groups. In T. L. Good (Ed.), 21st century learning (Vol. 1, pp. 203–211). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org