Over the past 20 years, there has been a major increase in the number of educational programs that have been developed, evaluated in rigorous (usually randomized) experiments, found to make a substantial difference in achievement, and then offered to schools by non-profit or for-profit organizations. Educators can easily find out about these proven programs in the federal What Works Clearinghouse, our own Evidence for ESSA website, and other sources. Yet very few of these, no matter how effective, have been widely adopted by schools. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) defined what it means for a program to have strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness, and encouraged or even (in some cases) incentivized use of these programs. Yet even with this, few of the roughly 120,000 U.S. elementary and secondary schools regularly use any of the more than 120 proven reading or mathematics programs that meet the requirements of Evidence for ESSA and show significant positive effects.
The evidence-to-practice connection in education is much in contrast to that in, say, medicine, where medications and treatments of all kinds that have proven in rigorous experiments that they can cure or prevent diseases are usually widely adopted by medical practitioners. The recent, rapid development and successful evaluations of Covid-19 vaccines are much in the news right now, but dozens of new drugs and other treatments are validated every year, and are then adopted widely. It is certainly true that vastly more money is invested in the whole evidence-to-practice process in medicine than is true in education, but even when educational programs are found effective in randomized experiments like those required in medicine, these programs rarely enter large-scale use. Further, evidence-to-practice is common in many other fields, such as agriculture and technology. But not education.
How Tutoring Might Change Evidence-to-Practice in Education
One of the problems of evidence-to-practice in education is that we lack clear examples where programs were proven effective and then universally applied and found effective at scale. For example, evidence-to-practice was haphazard in medicine until the 20th century, when sulfa drugs, penicillin, morphine, and cures for polio, among many others, solved massive societal problems, and established the idea that research in medicine could truly bring about major change. These breakthroughs were explicitly engineered to solve health problems of great concern to the public, just as the Covid-19 vaccines were explicitly engineered to solve the pandemic.
In education, we face similar problems in the post-Covid period. Millions of students have fallen far behind due to the closure of their schools. All sorts of solutions have been proposed, but only one, tutoring, has both a solid and substantial research base and a significant number of proven, practical, cost-effective solutions.
Perhaps this is our penicillin/polio/Covid moment. We face a problem that no one can deny, of a desperate need to enable millions of students who have lost ground in the pandemic to rapidly gain in reading and math achievement. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has provided billions of dollars to solve the problem, so for once, lack of money is not an obstacle. Due to developments in educational research over the past 20 years, we now have a set of tutoring models that have been proven effective in randomized experiments. If these programs can be rapidly scaled up and applied to enough students to make a meaningful difference among struggling students nationwide, then this may serve as the example we need to establish that development, research, and dissemination can solve societal problems in education.
My colleagues and I are organizing a demonstration exactly along these lines. Fourteen proven tutoring programs for reading and mathematics have formed a coalition, which we call ProvenTutoring. The purpose of the coalition is to make the case for proven tutoring programs, and then provide schools, districts, and states a choice of proven programs. Whichever programs are selected will then provide tutors with first-class professional development to ensure that tutoring is done well and that students receive the maximum benefit possible.
The fourteen programs had to be proven to succeed with college-educated teaching assistants as tutors (because requiring certified teachers would be impossible in a time of teacher shortages, and because evidence finds that well-supported teaching assistants get results as good as those obtained by certified teachers). Each program had to have capacity to go to substantial scale. We estimate that we can collectively serve 100,000 tutors who can serve about four million children, if all goes well.
ProvenTutoring will soon launch a website (which we will call ProvenTutoring.org) and a nationwide communications campaign to focus schools on proven tutoring as a key part of their post Covid-19 plans to combat learning losses. We will offer school districts webinars on proven tutoring, and allow users to explore specific programs to make informed choices among them. We will maintain rigorous standards of training and implementation, to make sure that the quality of implementation in practice, at scale, will be no less than the quality of implementation in the controlled experiments that established their impact.
How Successful Tutoring Could Lead to Support for Evidence-to-Practice
When districts, states, and the nation evaluate reading and math outcomes of struggling students in schools that adopted proven tutoring programs, in comparison to schools that used their ARPA money on other approaches, the outcomes should be clear. If they are, this will be a wonderful development for struggling students, and a major boost for tutoring as an intervention. However, it may also provide the example educational research needs to establish its capacity to solve big practical problems.
If ProvenTutoring is as effective as we expect, perhaps it will occur to our profession that this same strategy could apply wherever we want. This could lead to accelerated investment by government in development and evaluation of replicable programs in every crucial area of education, where robust solutions are needed. Someday, could there be ProvenAlgebra.org? ProvenScience.org? ProvenGraduation.org? Proven programs for English learners? ProvenPreschool.org? ProvenClassroomManagement.org? ProvenCivics.org? Whatever problems most need to be solved, there is no reason we cannot solve them using the same evidence-to-practice strategies that medicine, agriculture, and other fields have used so successfully for many decades.
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 Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.
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