Could Intensive Education Rescue Struggling Readers?

Long, long ago, I heard about a really crazy idea. Apparently, a few private high schools were trying a scheduling plan in which instead of having students take all of their subjects every day, they would take one subject at a time for a month or six weeks. The idea was that with a total concentration on one subject, with no time lost in changing classes, students could make astonishing progress. At the end of each week, they could see the progress they’d made, and really feel learning happening.

Algebra? Solved!

French? Accompli!

Of course, I could not talk anyone into trying this. I almost got a Catholic school to try it, but when they realized that kids would have to take religion all day, that was that.

However, in these awful days, with schools nationwide closing for months due to Covid, I was thinking about a way to use a similar concept with students who have fallen far behind, or actually with any students who are far behind grade level for any reason.

What happens now with students who are far behind in, say, reading, is that they get a daily period of remedial instruction, or special education. For most of them, despite the very best efforts of dedicated teachers, this is not very effective. Day after day after day, they get instruction that at best moves them forward at a slow, steady pace. But after a while, students lose any hope of truly catching up, and when you lose hope, you lose motivation, and no one learns without motivation.

blog_8-13-20_tripletutor_333x500So here is my proposal. What if students who were far behind could enroll in a six-week intensive service designed to teach them to read, no matter what? They would attend an intensive class, perhaps all day, in which they receive a promise: this time, you’ll make it. No excuses. This is the best chance you’ll ever have. Students would be carefully assessed, including their vision and hearing as well as their reading levels. They would be assigned to one-to-small group or, if necessary, one-to-one instruction for much of the day. There might be music or sports or other activities between sessions, but imagine that students got three 40-minute tutoring sessions a day, on content exactly appropriate to their needs. The idea, as in intensive education, would be to enable the students to feel the thrill of learning, to see unmistakable gains in a day, extraordinary gains in a week. The tutoring could be to groups of four for most students, but students with the most difficult, most unusual problems could receive one-to-one tutoring.

The ideal time to do this intensive tutoring would be summer school. Actually, this has been done in a few studies. Schacter & Jo (2005) provided intensive phonics instruction to students after first grade in three disadvantaged schools in Los Angeles. The seven-week experience increased their test scores by an effect size of +1.16, compared to similar students who did not have the opportunity to attend summer school. Zvoch & Stevens (2015) also provided intensive phonics instruction in small groups in a 5-week reading summer school. The students were disadvantaged kindergartners and first graders in a medium-sized city in the Pacific Northwest. The effect sizes were +0.60 for kindergarten, +0.78 for first grade.

Summer is not the only good time for intensive reading instruction. Reading is so important that it would be arguably worthwhile to provide intensive six-week instruction (with time out for mathematics) and breaks for, say, sports and music, during the school year.

If intensive education were as effective as ordinary 40-minute daily tutoring, it might be no more expensive. A usual course of tutoring is 20 weeks, so triple tutoring sessions for six weeks would cost almost the same as 18 weeks of ordinary tutoring. In other words, if intensive tutoring is more effective than ordinary tutoring, then the additional benefits might cost little or nothing.

Intensive tutoring would make particular sense to try during summer, 2021, when millions of students will still be far behind in reading because of the lengthy school closures they will have experienced. I have no idea whether intensive tutoring will be more or less effective than ordinary one-to-small group tutoring (which is very, very effective; see here and here). Planfully concentrating tutoring during an intensive period of time certainly seems worth a try!

References

Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2005.00260.x

Zvoch, K., & Stevens, J. J. (2013). Summer school effects in a randomized field trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.05.002

Photo credit: American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

 

“Am I Even Real Anymore?” The Truth About Virtual Learning

“My 8-year-old was sobbing last night because she misses playing with her friends at recess, she misses her teacher, and she is worried that everyone has forgotten her. At one point, she asked me if she was even real anymore.”

This appeared in a letter that ran in the July 25th Baltimore Sun. It was written by Jenny Elliott, a Catonsville mother of elementary students. In it, Ms. Elliott tells how she and her husband have been unable to get their kids to do the virtual learning assignments her kids’ school has assigned.

“(Virtual learning) just doesn’t work for them. I can’t physically force them to stare at their devices and absorb information. We’ve yelled, we’ve begged, we’ve made a game of it…we’ve tried everything we can think of. We failed.”

One of the most poignant parts of Ms. Elliott’s letter is her feeling that everyone knows that virtual learning isn’t working for most kids, but no one wants to say so.

“I am begging someone to speak honestly about virtual learning. I have only the perspective of an elementary school parent, but I have to imagine this negatively impacts children at all levels. The communication coming (from authorities) all over the country…it feels delusional.”

Ms. Elliott expresses enormous guilt. “As a parent, I’ve had to see this every day for the last five months, and every day I feel crushing guilt that I can’t make any of it better.” She expresses gratitude for the efforts of her kids’ teachers, and feels sympathy for them. (“I love you, teachers. I am so sorry this is your reality too.”)

blog_8-6-20_computerbordom_500x338 Ms. Elliott notes that if anyone should be able to make virtual learning work, it should be her family: “…a secure living situation, two parents, food security, access to high-speed internet, access to an internet-powered device, etc.” I might add that Catonsville is in suburban Baltimore County, which has a national reputation for its substantial investments in technology over many years.

Since I have written many blogs about schools’ responses to the Covid school closures, I’ve been expecting a letter like this. Informally, my colleagues and I have been chatting to teachers and parents we know with kids in school. Almost every single one tells a story like Ms. Elliott’s. Highly educated parents, plenty of technology, tech-savvy kids, capable and hard-working teachers, all different ages, it does not seem to matter. Teachers and parents alike refer to motivated and successful students who log on and then pay no attention. The kids are  communicating on a different device with their friends, playing games, reading, whatever. There are kids who are engaged with virtual learning, but very few that we’ve heard about.

Much of the reporting about virtual learning has emphasized the lack of access to the Internet, and districts are spending billions to provide devices and improve access. There is a lot of talk about how school closures are increasing learning gaps because disadvantaged students lack access to the Internet, as though school closures are only a problem for disadvantaged students. But if Ms. Elliott is representative of many parents, and I’m sure she is, the problem is far larger than that of students who lack access to technology.

Everyone involved with schools seems to know this, but they do not want to talk about it. There seems to be a giant, unspoken pall of guilt that keeps the reality of what is happening in virtual learning from being discussed openly. Parents feel guilty because they feel deficient if they are not able to get their kids to respond to virtual learning. Teachers feel guilty because they don’t want to admit that they are not able to get more of their students to pay attention. School administrators want to be perceived to be doing something, anything, to combat the educational effects of extended school closures, so while they do talk about the need to obtain more devices and offer teachers more professional development, they do not like to talk about the kids who do have devices, but don’t do much with them. They promise that things will soon be better, with more devices, more professional development, and better lessons turning the tide. Ms. Elliott is sympathetic, but doubtful. “I appreciate those efforts and wholeheartedly believe the educational system is doing the absolute best they can…but I can’t pretend that the virtual school plans will work for our kids.”

Ms. Elliott states at the beginning of her letter that she has no solution to suggest, but she just wants the truth to be known. I have no sure-fire solutions myself. But I do know one thing. Any workable solutions there may be will have to begin with a firm understanding of what is really happening in schools using virtual learning.

In most of the U.S., opening schools in August or September should be out of the question. The rates of new Covid cases remain far too high, and no amount of social distancing inside schools can be safe for students or staff when there are so many carriers of the disease outside of schools. The only true solution, until cures or vaccines are widely available, is to return to the one thing that has worked throughout the world: mandating universal use of masks, shutting down businesses that put people close to each other, and so on. This is the only thing that saved China and South Korea and Italy and Spain and New York City, and it is the only solution now. The faster we return to what works, the sooner we can fully open schools, and then start the long process of healing the terrible damage being done to our children’s learning.

I am not suggesting giving up on virtual learning. If schools will be closed for a long time, it is all we have. But I am pessimistic about trying to fix the current approach to virtual learning. I think we could use all those computers and educators online to much greater effort by providing online tutoring to individuals and small groups, for example, rather than trying to create a classroom community out of children working from home. Perhaps there are ways other than tutoring to use online instruction effectively, but I do not know them. In any case, we need immediate investment in development and evaluation to find the most effective and cost-effective solutions possible, while we wait for a safe time to open schools. We’ll all get through this, one way or the other, but in order to minimize the negative impact on student learning, let’s start with the truth, and then build and use the evidence of what works.

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

The Case for Optimism

In the July 16 New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an article with a provocative title: “We Interrupt This Gloom to Offer…Hope.”

Kristof’s basic point is that things have gotten so awful in the U.S. that, in response, with any luck, we could soon be able to make progress on many issues that we could never make in normal times. He gives the example of the Great Depression, which made possible Social Security, rural electrification, and much more. And the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Could the crises we are going through right now have even more profound and long-lasting consequences? The Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the lack of preparedness and the profound inequities in our health systems that everyone knew about, but that our political systems could not fix. The Black Lives Matter movement is not new, but George Floyd’s killing and many other outrages caught on video are fueling substantial changes in attitudes among people of all races, making genuine progress possible. The shockingly unequal impacts of both Covid itself and its economic impacts are tearing away complacency about the different lives that are possible for rich and poor. The attacks by federal troops on peaceful demonstrators in Washington and Portland are likely to drive Americans to get back to the core principles in our Constitution, ones we too often take for granted. When this is all over, how can we just return to the way things were?

What is happening in education is appalling. Our inept response to the Covid pandemic makes it literally murder to open schools in many parts of the country. Some districts are already announcing that they will not open until January. With schools closed, or only partially open, students will be expected to learn remote, online lessons, which author Doug Lemov aptly describes as “like teaching through a keyhole.”

The statistics say that a tenth or a quarter or a half of students, depending on where they are, are not logging into online learning even once. For disadvantaged students and students in rural areas, this is due in part to a lack of access to equipment or broadband, and school districts are collectively spending billions to increase access to computers. But talk to just about any teacher or parent or student, including the most conscientious students with the best technology and the most supportive parents. They are barely going through the motions. The utter failure of online education in this crisis is a crisis in itself.

The ultimate result of the school closures and the apparent implosion of online teaching is that when schools do open, students will have fallen far behind. Gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students, awful in the best of times, will grow even larger.

So how can I possibly be optimistic?

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There are several things that I believe are highly likely to occur in the coming months in our country. First, once students are back in school, we will find out how far behind they have fallen, and we will have to declare an educational emergency, with adequate funding to match the seriousness of the problems. Then the following will have to happen.

  1. Using federal money, states and districts will contract with local agencies to hire an army of tutors to work individually or in small groups with struggling students, especially in elementary reading and mathematics, where there are many proven programs ready to go. Frankly, this is no longer optional. There is nothing nearly as effective as one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Nothing else can be put in place as quickly with as high a likelihood of working. As I’ve reported in previous blogs, England and the Netherlands have already announced national tutoring programs to combat the achievement gaps being caused by school closures. My own state, Maryland, has recently announced a $100 million program to provide tutoring statewide. Millions of recent college graduates will be without jobs in the recession that is certain to come. The best of them will be ideal candidates to serve as tutors.
  2. America is paying a heavy price for ignoring its scientists, and science itself. Although there has been rapid growth in the evidence base and in the availability of proven programs, educational research and proven programs are still paid little attention in school policies and practices. In the education crisis we face, perhaps this will change. Might it be possible that schools could receive incentive funding to enable them to adopt proven programs known to make substantial differences in learning from Pre-K to 12th grade and beyond? In normal times, people can ignore evidence about what works in reading or mathematics or science or social-emotional learning. But these are not normal times. No school should be forced to use any particular program, but government can use targeted funding and encouragement to enable schools to select and effectively implement programs of their choice.
  3. In emergencies, government often accelerates funding for research and development to quickly find solutions for pressing national problems. This is happening now as labs nationwide are racing to develop Covid vaccines and cures, for example. As we declare an education emergency, we should be investing in research and development to respond to high-priority needs. For example, there are several proven programs for elementary students struggling in reading or mathematics. Yet we have few if any proven tutoring programs for middle or high schools. Middle school tutoring methods have been proven effective in England, so we know this can work, but we need to adapt and evaluate English models for the U.S., or evaluate existing U.S. programs that are promising but unevaluated, or develop new models for the U.S. If we are wise, we will do all three of these things. In the education emergency we face, it is not the time to fiddle around the edges. It is time to use our national innovative capacity to identify and solve big problems.

If America does declare a national education emergency, if it does mobilize an army of tutors using proven programs, if it invests in creating and evaluating new, ever more effective programs to solve educational problems and incentivizes schools to use them, an amazing thing will happen. In addition to solving our immediate problems, we will have learned how to make our schools much more effective, even in normal times.

Yes, things will someday get back to normal. But if we do the right things to solve our crises, we will not just be returning to normal. We will be returning to better. Maybe a lot better.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

Let’s Learn from Peer Countries How to Open Schools Safely

*Guest blogger Nathan Storey is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University

The time to develop and finalize plans for the reopening of U.S. schools in the fall is closing. Labor Day is little more than a month away. How are states to determine the best methods of reopening schools? What issues should receive the most attention when developing plans? Students’ physical health and safety is always a concern in schools, but teachers, administrators, and staff are particularly at risk, especially staff over 50 and those with certain health conditions. Many school districts are grappling with this question.

One potential source of information about school opening may be the experiences of other countries that have already opened their schools.  Fortunately, a number of other countries have been conducting a natural experiment, whether they think of it that way or not, and the United States has the opportunity to draw important lessons from their experiences in order to create plans for safe instruction. Increasing numbers of schools have decided to close this fall, in light of the high and rising rates of new cases in most states. However, when schools do open, we should learn from the experiences of peer nations.

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While we wait for more data to come in, the experiences of other nations demonstrate what approaches may work best and what approaches are too expensive, labor intensive, insufficient, or downright unsafe. For instance, we have seen some nations initially open in a phased approach or using alternative day attendance, but later loosen school processes due to lowering COVID rates or implementation challenges. The Washington Post recently reported that Belgium and Japan reopened following an alternative day attendance structure, and recently loosened protocols in schools. Both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium opened in phases, first for key grades (grades leading to a certification) in primary and secondary education, and later, following an open letter signed by 269 pediatricians, for all grades in kindergarten and primary schools. But each section of the country took different approaches in the opened schools. French-speaking Belgium implemented “bubbles” of classes that stayed together throughout the school day, not interacting with other students, and entering and exiting the building through different doors or according to staggered hours for instance. Within the classroom, students were not required to wear masks or socially distance from one another. In Flemish-speaking Belgium, classes were split into two groups, with each attending school in person two days per week, with Wednesday as a cleaning day.

Belgium was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, but by early June, had largely contained the coronavirus. The reopening of schools was considered a success: there were only 15-20 Covid cases among the children from 2,500 schools in the French section, apparently not linked with school but rather with home conditions. No case involving children required hospitalization. A national increase of 66% in mid-July did not appear to be linked to schools. Nationwide, just four schools partly closed, and only one school needed to close completely, as the bubble concept allowed schools to quarantine single bubbles where infections occurred instead of closing and quarantining the entire school population.

These moves towards normalizing and adjusting as necessary are possible because Belgium and other countries, including Denmark, have done the work to minimize spread in the population and have put into place protocols in case of infection spread, such as contact tracing and quarantines. Similarly, Australia reopened schools and eventually loosened social distancing within schools, but when cases increased, in the Victoria (Melbourne) region, they returned to lockdowns. However, school closures are a small part of this. Israel began limiting class sizes when they reopened schools in May, and required masks to be worn by anyone over seven years of age. As cases spiked in the past weeks, the country moved all instruction for fourth grade and up to remote instruction. Israel now has plans to reopen schools for all grades with smaller class sizes, additional teachers, and hybrid education for middle and high school students.

Some hope for U.S. states may be found in Sweden. Sweden has essentially stayed open throughout the pandemic, without restrictions on class sizes or social distancing requirements for all except grades 10 and up, which were closed from March to mid-June. COVID cases among students connected to schools have been similar in prevalence to those in nearby Finland, and teachers of all grades appear to be at the same risk of infection as other adults. It is unknown, though, why this might be the case. One journalist speculated that naturally smaller class sizes and the exclusion of older students may play a role.

Reopening schools will be a work in progress. There does not seem to be one single approach that solves all COVID-related problems for schools. The countries that have had more success and had schools that have stayed open for the most part have generally been those that have contained the virus within their borders and have developed contingency plans for when infections occur. Meanwhile, in most U.S. states, COVID rates are on the increase. No country has opened schools when rates of new cases were high and rising, as is true today in the U.S. We have a long way to go before we are ready for full in-person schooling. But when U.S. rates of new cases diminish to, say, European levels (about 16 per hundred thousand; the U.S. is over 100), we should look carefully at what other countries have done and what their results have been, so that we can make wise choices to keep students and staff safe.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

Does it Take a Pandemic to Find Out That All Children Can and Must Learn to Read?

Recently, I got a “case study” from one of our Success for All schools in England, Applegarth Academy in Croydon, a disadvantaged area south of London. I’ve written about Applegarth before as the flagship school of the STEP Trust, a multi-academy trust,  which serves an impoverished, multi-ethnic student body. In the most recent national rankings, Applegarth scored sixth among the more than roughly 16,700 primary schools in all of England.

This case study, which you can see here, involves a child using a U.K. adaptation of our Tutoring With Alphie program. However, this story is not really about Success for All, or Tutoring With Alphie, or the STEP Trust. It is about something far more fundamental.

What happened is that a student I’ll call Richard moved to Applegarth in Year 6 (like fifth grade). England closed its schools in March due to the Covid crisis, and then re-opened them in June and July just for the equivalent of kindergarten, first grade, and fifth grade. Applegarth staff used this opportunity to prepare its Year 6 students for secondary school.

Applegarth tested Richard, and was astonished to find out that he had nearly zero reading skills. He scored at the kindergarten level. Applegarth was piloting the Tutoring With Alphie program, usually used with four children at a time. However, the school made a decision in this extraordinary case to give Richard 90 minutes a day of one-to-one tutoring.

In three weeks, Richard could read. He was not at grade level, but he gained 2.2 years. He could read The Hodgeheg! Richard was thrilled and now hopes to go on to read Harry Potter books.

By itself, this is a heartwarming story. But to me it is also infuriating. Tutoring With Alphie is not magic. If Richard could learn to read in three weeks, this says to me that he could have learned to read in Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, or Year 5. He was described as a bright, sweet child, eager to learn. Yet somehow his previous school was unable to teach him to read in the five or six years they had him. Perhaps it did not occur to anyone that this was a crisis, literally a life in the balance: A bright child who obviously could have learned to read at any time but did not. If Applegarth’s staff had not noticed Richard’s problem or had not had the resources to help him, Richard would have headed into secondary school in September with no reading skills. Do you know what happens in secondary schools to kids who can’t read? Do you know what happens in life to people who can’t read?

Richard’s situation before he came to Applegarth is all too common. A while back, I wrote about a book by my friend Buzzy Hettleman, called Mislabeled as Disabled. This book presents example after example of bright, eager, well-behaved students in Baltimore who end up in high school reading at the kindergarten or first grade levels.

The problem in all of these cases is that education systems are designed to move very large numbers of students from grade to grade. That system works, sort of, for most students, but there is a large minority of students for whom it does not work. And one way or another, with or without special education services, too many of these students just slide by. Educators may be aware of a child’s poor performance, but do not have the time, resources, or support to stop the conveyor belt and say, “We have to do whatever is necessary to see that this child learns.” In Richard’s case, he got lucky. How often does any non-reading fifth grader in any school anywhere get 90 minutes of high-quality tutoring every day for three weeks, until they begin to make rapid progress? Almost never. Yet there are millions of Richards in our schools, millions who absolutely could succeed, but do not get what they need to do so.

blog_7-16-20_tutoring_461x500As my readers know, England and the Netherlands are investing heavily in tutoring to help overcome losses students have experienced due to Covid-19 school closures. Perhaps someday, similar investments will be made in the U.S. As a result of the English and Dutch investments, hundreds of thousands of students will receive intensive tutoring in reading and mathematics. And even though these tutoring services will be provided to solve the learning effects of a pandemic, perhaps educators will notice that students who are in academic difficulty will make dramatic gains. Perhaps they will wonder why similar services shouldn’t be provided to all students who need them, pandemic or no pandemic.

In the U.S., the U.K., and many other countries, millions of little Richards are entering our schools. With appropriate help, every one of them should be able to learn to read the first time they are taught, or soon after they are found to have difficulties. It’s so obvious, it’s so simple. Why does it take a pandemic to find it out?

Photo credit: Arungir / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

When Scientific Literacy is a Matter of Life and Death

The Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the importance of science.  More than at any time I can recall (with the possible exception of panic over the Soviet launch of Sputnik), scientists are in the news.  We count on them to find a cure for people with the Covid-19 virus and a vaccine to prevent new cases.  We count on them to predict the progression of the pandemic, and to discover public health strategies to minimize its spread.  We are justifiably proud of the brilliance, dedication, and hard work scientists are exhibiting every day.

Yet the Covid-19 pandemic is also throwing a harsh light on the scientific understanding of the whole population.  Today, scientific literacy can be a matter of life or death.  Although political leaders, advised by science experts, may recommend what we should do to minimize risks to ourselves and our families, people have to make their own judgments about what is safe and what is not.  The graphs in the newspaper showing how new infections and deaths are trending have real meaning.  They should inform what choices people make.  We are bombarded with advice on the Internet, from friends and neighbors, from television, in the news.  Yet these sources are likely to conflict.  Which should we believe?  Is it safe to go for a walk?  To the grocery store?  To church?  To a party?  Is Grandpa safer at home or in assisted living?

Scientific literacy is something we all should have learned in school. I would define scientific literacy as an understanding of scientific method, a basic understanding of how things work in nature and in technology, and an understanding of how scientists generate new knowledge and subject possible treatments, such as medicines, to rigorous tests.  All of these understandings, and many more, are ordinarily useful in generally understanding the news, for example, but for most people they do not have major personal consequences.  But now they do, and it is terrifying to hear the misconceptions and misinformation people have.  In the current situation, a misconception or misinformation can kill you, or cause you to make decisions that can lead to the death of a family member.

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The importance of scientific literacy in the whole population is now apparent in everyday life.  Yet scientific literacy has not been emphasized in our schools.  Especially in elementary schools, science has taken a back seat, because reading and mathematics are tested every year on state tests, beginning in third grade, but science is not tested in most years.  Many elementary teachers will admit that their own preparation in science was insufficient.  In secondary schools, science classes seem to have been developed to produce scientists, which is of course necessary, but not to produce a population that values and understands scientific information.  And now we are paying the price for this limited focus.

One indicator of our limited focus on science education is the substantial imbalance between the amount of rigorous research in science compared to the amount in mathematics and reading.  I have written reviews of research in each of these areas (see www.bestevidence.org), and it is striking how many fewer experimental studies there are in elementary and secondary science.  Take a look at the What Works Clearinghouse, for another example.  There are many programs in the WWC that focus on reading and mathematics, but science?  Not so many.   Given the obvious importance of science and technology to our economy, you would imagine that investments in research in science education would be a top priority, but judging from the numbers of studies of science programs for elementary and secondary schools, that is certainly not taking place.

The Covid-19 pandemic is giving us a hard lesson in the importance of science for all Americans, not just those preparing to become scientists.  I hope we are learning this lesson, and when the crisis is over, I hope our government and private foundations will greatly increase their investments in research, development, evaluation, and dissemination of proven science approaches for all students.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

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

Changing Thoughts on School Opening in the Fall

School districts all over the U.S. are planning how they will safely open schools next fall. Depending on Covid-19 infection rates, schools in some states and districts might not open at all, at least until conditions improve. However, there will also be many schools opening when the dangers of Covid-19 are relatively low, and schools can be reasonably safe if they are careful. This is the situation state and district leaders are mainly trying to plan for.

For the past several months, I have been reading about and hearing about plans to partially open schools in the fall. These plans have involved reducing the number of students in each class to allow for social distancing among students. Reducing the numbers of students in these plans usually requires having students attend schools on alternate days (“A Day”/”B Day”), and working online at home on the non-school days. Another often-discussed plan has students attend school either before lunch or after lunch.

Such plans are likely to be educationally damaging, because it is becoming widely acknowledged that online learning is simply no match for in-person teaching, especially for disadvantaged students, who often do not have access to adequate technology for online learning. However, these plans are based on the assumption that social distancing is the key to protecting students from getting or transmitting Covid-19. Social distancing is in fact highly effective with adults, but children rarely get or transmit Covid-19, and in the rare cases when they do, they almost never die from it. Further, while it is possible to maintain social distancing during well-organized class time, it is nearly impossible to keep students apart during recess, much less waiting for busses or walking to and from school. In a news story from Sydney, Australia, an eighth grader described how his school started the school year with strict social distancing, but within a week, it completely broke down, because students found so many ways to get together at times other than class time. Based on informal stories from schools opening this spring in the Southern Hemisphere, China, Singapore, and Europe, it seems that this is a widespread problem.

blog_7-02-20_covidstudents_500x333Recently, a major policy document from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out squarely against plans that involve students being required to rely on distance learning all or some of the time:

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

The AAP’s rationale depends in part on concerns that social distancing cannot be maintained, in part on the evidence that children are at very small risk for Covid-19, and in part on the health and mental health hazards of having many children staying at home for long periods, especially if adult supervision cannot be arranged. These dangers, note the AAP, include dangers of isolation, physical and sexual abuse, substance use, depression, food insecurity, and lack of physical activity.

The AAP does recommend as much social distancing as can be feasibly arranged within schools. It also notes the importance of maintaining social distancing among staff members, for example, by restricting meetings to electronic communications. It suggests masks for staff and students, especially in secondary school, as much as possible, as well as testing students and staff.

The AAP recommendations seem sensible and flexible, and would maximize effective learning time, not a minor factor. Their document provides additional details to consider at each grade level.

I do not know how influential the AAP guidelines have been, and perhaps other trusted organizations are making similar recommendations. However, districts around the country are beginning to announce their school re-opening plans, and some I have heard about are aligned with the AAP approach (i.e., fully open, with care). There are districts proposing A Day/B Day schedules, and other means of reducing the numbers of students in each class to allow social distancing, but many others are proposing that when numbers of new cases get low enough, they will fully open, and let schools do as much social distancing in class as they can within whatever space their facilities allow. Plans I’ve heard about are generally allowing parents to keep students at home if they wish, and will provide these students remote learning opportunities. I think all plans include the flexibility to closely monitor the health consequences of each plan, and be ready to change course, even to close schools again if disease rates spike for staff or students.

In the U.S., we have the luxury of being able to learn from the many schools around the world that have opened their schools before we will have to do so (or not) in August or September. These include schools in the Southern Hemisphere and East Asia, which open in our spring, as well as schools in Europe, where many countries have chosen to open schools in June and July. At this very moment, these schools are actually implementing a wide variety of the same strategies U.S. schools are just thinking about. Do other countries find out that school opening strategies emphasizing social distancing are effective? Which combinations of strategies turn out to be most effective, for both the health of students and staff and the education of students?

Our research group is collecting newspaper articles, government reports, and formal studies around the world, and we are asking teachers, parents, and students in these schools to tell us what they are seeing on the ground (we have friends all over). This effort will be less than systematic, but what we report will be timely and unvarnished. I sincerely hope that researchers are systematically studying outcomes of alternative plans. However, we also need immediate on-the-ground information on what other countries are experiencing.

The Covid-19 crisis has put educational leaders into positions of terrible responsibility for the lives of children and staff. They are seeking and heeding advice from medical and public health professionals, and have been struggling to balance educational and health needs. I think everyone owes these leaders enormous respect for the decisions they are having to make. As the summer progresses, I hope school leaders will be paying attention to the experiences of countries that have opened their schools, learning from their successes and setbacks, before implementing the best plans possible for all of our children.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

Large-Scale Tutoring in England: Countering Effects of School Closures

The government of England recently announced an investment of £1 billion to provide tutoring and other services to help the many students whose educational progress has been interrupted by Covid-19 school closures. This is the equivalent of $1.24 billion, and adjusting for the difference in populations, it is like a U.S. investment of $7.44 billion, even larger than the equivalent of the similar Dutch investment recently announced.

Both England and the Netherlands have Covid-19 disease and death rates like those of the U.S., and all three countries are unsure of when schools might open in the fall, and whether they will open fully or partially when they do. All three countries have made extensive use of online learning to help students keep up with core content. However, participation rates in online learning have been low, especially for disadvantaged students, who often lack access to equipment and assistance at home. For this reason, education leaders in all of these countries are very concerned that academic achievement will be greatly harmed, and that gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students will grow. The difference is that Dutch and English schools are taking resolute action to remedy this problem, primarily by providing one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring nationwide. The U.S. has not yet done this, except for an initiative in Tennessee.

blog_6-25-20_brittutor_500x425The English initiative has two distinct parts. £650 million will go directly to schools, with an expectation that they will spend most of it on one-to-four tutoring to students who most need it. The schools will mostly use the money to hire and train tutors, mainly student teachers and teaching assistants.

The remaining £350 million will go to fund an initiative led by the Education Endowment Foundation. In this National Tutoring Programme (NTP), 75% of the cost of tutoring struggling students will be subsidized. The tutoring may be either one-to-one or one-to-small group, and will be provided by organizations with proven programs and proven capacity to deliver tutoring at scale in primary and secondary schools. EEF is also carrying out evaluations of promising tutoring programs in various parts of England.

What Do the English and Dutch Tutoring Initiatives Mean for the U.S.?

The English and Dutch tutoring initiatives serve as an example of what wealthy nations can do to combat the learning losses of their students in the Covid-19 emergency. By putting these programs in place now, these countries have allowed time to organize their ambitious plans for fall implementation, and to ensure that the money will be wisely spent. In particular, the English National Tutoring Programme has a strong emphasis on the use of tutoring programs with evidence of effectiveness. In fact, the £350 million NTP could turn out to be the largest pragmatic education investment ever made anywhere designed to put proven programs into widespread use, and if all goes well, this aspect of the NTP could have important implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.

The U.S. is only now beginning to seriously consider tutoring as a means of accelerating the learning of students whose learning progress has been harmed by school closures. There have been proposals to invest in tutoring in both houses of Congress, but these are not expected to pass. Unless our leaders embrace the idea of intensive services to help struggling students soon, schools will partially or fully open in the fall into a very serious crisis. The economy will be in recession and schools will be struggling just to keep qualified teachers in every classroom. The amount of loss in education levels will become apparent. Yet there will not be well-worked-out or well-funded means of enabling schools to remedy the severe losses sure to exist, especially for disadvantaged students. These losses could have long-term negative effects on students’ progress, as poor basic skills reduce students’ abilities to learn advanced content, and undermine their confidence and motivation. Tutoring or other solutions would still be effective if applied later next school year, but by then the problems will be even more difficult to solve.

Perhaps national or state governments or large private foundations could at least begin to pilot and evaluate tutoring programs capable of going to scale. This would be immediately beneficial to the students involved and would facilitate effective implementation and scale-up when government makes the needed resources available. But action is needed now. Gaps in achievement between middle class and disadvantaged students were already the most important problem in American education, and the problem has certainly worsened. This is the time to see that all students receive whatever it takes to get back on a track to success.

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

Are the Dutch Solving the Covid Slide with Tutoring?

For a small country, the Netherlands has produced a remarkable number of inventions. The Dutch invented the telescope, the microscope, the eye test, Wi-Fi, DVD/Blue-Ray, Bluetooth, the stock market, golf, and major improvements in sailboats, windmills, and water management. And now, as they (like every other country) are facing major educational damage due to school closures in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the Dutch who are the first to apply tutoring on a large scale to help students who are furthest behind. The Dutch government recently announced a plan to allocate the equivalent of $278 million to provide support to all students in elementary, secondary, and vocational schools who need it. Schools can provide the support in different ways (e.g., summer schools, extended school days), but it is likely that a significant amount of the money will be spent on tutoring. The Ministry of Education proposed to recruit student teachers to provide tutoring, who will have to be specially trained for this role.

blog_6-18-20_Dutchclass_500x333The Dutch investment would be equivalent to a U.S. investment of about $5.3 billion, because of our much larger population. That’s a lot of tutors. Including salaries, materials, and training, I’d estimate this much money would support about 150,000 tutors. If each could work in small groups with 50 students a year, they might serve about 7,500,000 students each year, roughly one in every seven American children. That would be a pretty good start.

Where would we get all this money? Because of the recession we are in now, millions of recent college graduates will not be able to find work. Many of these would make great tutors. As in any recession, the federal government will seek to restart the economy by investing in people. In this particular recession, it would be wise to devote part of such investments to support enthusiastic young people to learn and apply proven tutoring approaches coast to coast.

Imagine that we created an American equivalent of the Dutch tutoring program. How could such a huge effort be fielded in time to help the millions of students who need substantial help? The answer would be to build on organizations that already exist and know how to recruit, train, mentor, and manage large numbers of people. The many state-based AmeriCorps agencies would be a great place to begin, and in fact there has already been discussion in the U.S. Congress about a rapid expansion of AmeriCorps for work in health and education roles to heal the damage of Covid-19. The former governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, is funding a statewide tutoring plan in collaboration with Boys and Girls Clubs. Other national non-profit organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, City Year, and Communities in Schools could each manage recruitment, training, and management of tutors in particular states and regions.

It would be critical to make certain that the tutoring programs used under such a program are proven to be effective, and are ready to be scaled up nationally, in collaboration with local agencies with proven track records.

All of this could be done. Considering the amounts of money recently spent in the U.S. to shore up the economy, and the essential need both to keep people employed and to make a substantial difference in student learning, $5.3 billion targeted to proven approaches seems entirely reasonable.

If the Dutch can mount such an effort, there is no reason we could not do the same. It would be wonderful to help both unemployed new entrants to the labor force and students struggling in reading or mathematics. A double Dutch treat!

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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

Opening Healthy Schools

It seems that every educational leader in America, and every health professional involved in any way with children, is currently trying to figure out how to open schools safely this coming fall. This is a very complex problem, and I would not presume to offer solutions to all of it. But I would humbly offer some thoughts on key health aspects of the school opening problem, beyond the purely educational issues I have been discussing in previous blogs (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

I am not an epidemiologist. I don’t even play one on television. However, I do know a little bit about school health, from working with very talented colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the Baltimore City Health Department, and the Baltimore Cuty Public Schools, on projects involving ensuring that all students who need them receive, wear, and benefit from eyeglasses. Also, I checked this blog out with colleagues who do know what they are talking about.

First, I will start with an observation. So far, it seems that Covid-19 rarely harms children. Using Maryland data, only 2.2% of cases, and no deaths, have involved children ages 0-9, and 4.2% have involved children and teens ages 10-19, and there has been one death statewide, in a state of six million people.  As a point of comparison, about four Maryland children die of asthma each year. In contrast, teacher-aged people, ages 20 to 59, represent 66.8% of Covid-19 cases, and 243 deaths (I would assume that these rates will be much less by September, or the schools would not be opening in the first place). Keeping children safe from the virus is essential, even if they rarely die from it, but from a public health perspective, the problem is not only what opening schools could mean for the health of students. It is also what opening schools could mean for the health of staff, parents, and other adult relatives and friends of staff and parents.  Unless the disease is completely gone by September, or unless there are widespread vaccines or cures, which seem very unlikely, any solution to limit negative health effects of opening is going to have to focus on staff and parents, not just students. Beyond the importance of protecting the health of the adults closest to the children, it is important to be aware that children who do get the disease probably get it from their families or other adults, not just from other children, so keeping these particular adults healthy is going to be a key way to keep children safe. Further, if staff members, parents, and other family members do become ill, this can have a profound impact on children even if the children do not get the disease themselves.

What these observations mean is that to be truly safe after re-opening, each school should create and implement plans to keep their entire community safe and healthy. One aspect of this might be to have schools build capacity to serve as a local health information and referral center, at least as regards Covid-19, for children, staff, and parents. My proposal would be first, to make sure that each school has a full- or part-time school nurse (currently, approximately 25% of America’s schools do not have even a part-time nurse). Then, I would propose that states, local health departments, or school districts assign one or more well-trained school health aides to each school, to work in partnership with other school support staff under the direction of the school nurse. These health aides might be people with college degrees, such as recent college graduates, trained specifically for this role. They would need to be paid for with federal funds intended to provide employment.

The purpose of the school health aides would be to use whatever resources are available by next fall to ensure that every child, parent, family member, and school staff member, is free of Covid-19, or if they have the disease, they are being directed to local health professionals for isolation and treatment. School health aides might take temperatures of anyone who enters the school, and take appropriate actions if anyone has a high temperature (as hospitals are doing now for everyone who enters). They could provide up-to-date information to parents, staff, and students about social distancing, symptoms of Covid-19, and sources of care. When a cure becomes available, the school health aides’ function could include notifying school community members about the availability of the medication, making sure that all who need it are receiving it, taking their medicine as directed, and doing whatever else is medically necessary. As vaccinations become available, they could help notify school community members about the vaccinations, and help keep track of who has been vaccinated and who has not. The health aide would not be expected to directly provide medical services, of course, but would be charged with keeping track of the health status of the whole school community (with all due concern for confidentiality consistent with HIPAA) and coordinating with local health providers to provide information to parents and staff on available services.

blog_6-11-20_sickgirl_500x333

Why is the school the right place to house health aides to serve the school’s own children, parents, staff, and community? One answer is that schools, especially elementary schools, are available in every community, and they are trusted and familiar places.  In inner city and poor rural areas, they may be the only trusted institution in the community. A key function of the school health aides would be to form positive relationships with children, parents, and community members. This is easiest in schools, where concern for community health can clearly be seen as concern for children, something that every community values. Providing services to school staff members would allow schools to help staff members stay safe. Services to parents would be purely voluntary, and would hopefully supplement services parents might receive in other ways. People who are not involved with schools should be able to receive similar information services from hospitals or community health centers, but the school community has unique needs and strengths that a health aide could help mobilize.

Covid-19 will, we hope, diminish in numbers and impact, so after schools have successfully opened and the virus begins to affect fewer and fewer people, the role of the school health aides could change. At least in high-poverty communities, many children have chronic health problems that seriously interfere with school success. Examples include students who have vision problems, students with asthma, and students with auditory problems. Especially in disadvantaged communities, children may not have treatment for these problems, and even if they have been prescribed eyeglasses, inhalers, medications, or other necessary treatments, they may not be using them regularly, so the problem remains unsolved. In addition to whatever they need to continue to do to keep Covid-19 under control, school health aides could take on roles in which they ensure that students who need eyeglasses receive them and wear them, students who need asthma inhaler medication are observed every school day to ensure that they are taking their medicine, and so on. I have proposed these functions previously, but in the age of Covid-19, the need for people in the school who can help make certain that all children are receiving needed health interventions has become even more important.

School health aides would provide a front line of information gathering, dissemination of information to school community members, relationship formation, and referral to established health providers.  As children or adults are found to need services, the school health aides would help link them up with hospitals or community health centers, as appropriate.

I am only roughing out what a system might look like, and there are many aspects that could be done differently, or adapted to local circumstances. My hope is just to provide an overview of a system of supports, based in schools, capable of helping entire school communities do the detailed family-by-family work necessary to eliminate Covid-19, and at the same time build up a trusted, capable, and community-friendly network to improve the health of all children. Whether or not this is the right system, something much like it will be necessary if we are to be able to strengthen the health of our schools and our communities in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures..

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