On Replicability: Why We Don’t Celebrate Viking Day

I was recently in Oslo, Norway’s capital, and visited a wonderful museum displaying three Viking ships that had been buried with important people. The museum had all sorts of displays focused on the amazing exploits of Viking ships, always including the Viking landings in Newfoundland, about 500 years before Columbus. Since the 1960s, most people have known that Vikings, not Columbus, were the first Europeans to land in America. So why do we celebrate Columbus Day, not Viking Day?

Given the bloodthirsty actions of Columbus, easily rivaling those of the Vikings, we surely don’t prefer one to the other based on their charming personalities. Instead, we celebrate Columbus Day because what Columbus did was far more important. The Vikings knew how to get back to Newfoundland, but they were secretive about it. Columbus was eager to publicize and repeat his discovery. It was this focus on replication that opened the door to regular exchanges. The Vikings brought back salted cod. Columbus brought back a new world.

In educational research, academics often imagine that if they establish new theories or demonstrate new methods on a small scale, and then publish their results in reputable journals, their job is done. Call this the Viking model: they got what they wanted (promotions or salt cod), and who cares if ordinary people found out about it? Even if the Vikings had published their findings in the Viking Journal of Exploration, this would have had roughly the same effect as educational researchers publishing in their own research journals.

Columbus, in contrast, told everyone about his voyages, and very publicly repeated and extended them. His brutal leadership ended with him being sent back to Spain in chains, but his discoveries had resounding impacts that long outlived him.

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Educational researchers only want to do good, but they are unlikely to have any impact at all unless they can make their ideas useful to educators. Many educational researchers would love to make their ideas into replicable programs, evaluate these programs in schools, and if they are found to be effective, disseminate them broadly. However, resources for the early stages of development and research are scarce. Yes, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and Education Innovation Research (EIR) fund a lot of development projects, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) provides small grants for this purpose to for-profit companies. Yet these funders support only a tiny proportion of the proposals they receive. In England, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) spends a lot on randomized evaluations of promising programs, but very little on development or early-stage research. Innovations that are funded by government or other funding very rarely end up being evaluated in large experiments, fewer still are found to be effective, and vanishingly few eventually enter widespread use. The exceptions are generally programs crated by large for-profit companies, large and entrepreneurial non-profits, or other entities with proven capacity to develop, evaluate, support, and disseminate programs at scale. Even the most brilliant developers and researchers rarely have the interest, time, capital, business expertise, or infrastructure to nurture effective programs through all the steps necessary to bring a practical and effective program to market. As a result, most educational products introduced at scale to schools come from commercial publishers or software companies, who have the capital and expertise to create and disseminate educational programs, but serve a market that primarily wants attractive, inexpensive, easy-to-use materials, software, and professional development, and is not (yet) willing to pay for programs proven to be effective. I discussed this problem in a recent blog on technology, but the same dynamics apply to all innovations, tech and non-tech alike.

How Government Can Promote Proven, Replicable Programs

There is an old saying that Columbus personified the spirit of research. He didn’t know where he was going, he didn’t know where he was when he got there, and he did it all on government funding. The relevant part of this is the government funding. In Columbus’ time, only royalty could afford to support his voyage, and his grant from Queen Isabella was essential to his success. Yet Isabella was not interested in pure research. She was hoping that Columbus might open rich trade routes to the (east) Indies or China, or might find gold or silver, or might acquire valuable new lands for the crown (all of these things did eventually happen). Educational research, development, and dissemination face a similar situation. Because education is virtually a government monopoly, only government is capable of sustained, sizable funding of research, development, and dissemination, and only the U.S. government has the acknowledged responsibility to improve outcomes for the 50 million American children ages 4-18 in its care. So what can government do to accelerate the research-development-dissemination process?

  1. Contract with “seed bed” organizations capable of identifying and supporting innovators with ideas likely to make a difference in student learning. These organizations might be rewarded, in part, based on the number of proven programs they are able to help create, support, and (if effective) ultimately disseminate.
  2. Contract with independent third-party evaluators capable of doing rigorous evaluations of promising programs. These organizations would evaluate promising programs from any source, not just from seed bed companies, as they do now in IES, EIR, and EEF grants.
  3. Provide funding for innovators with demonstrated capacity to create programs likely to be effective and funding to disseminate them if they are proven effective. Developers may also contract with “seed bed” organizations to help program developers succeed with development and dissemination.
  4. Provide information and incentive funding to schools to encourage them to adopt proven programs, as described in a recent blog on technology.  Incentives should be available on a competitive basis to a broad set of schools, such as all Title I schools, to engage many schools in adoption of proven programs.

Evidence-based reform in education has made considerable progress in the past 15 years, both in finding positive examples that are in use today and in finding out what is not likely to make substantial differences. It is time for this movement to go beyond its early achievements to enter a new phase of professionalism, in which collaborations among developers, researchers, and disseminators can sustain a much faster and more reliable process of research, development, and dissemination. It’s time to move beyond the Viking stage of exploration to embrace the good parts of the collaboration between Columbus and Queen Isabella that made a substantial and lasting change in the whole world.

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.

Nobel Experiments

The world of evidence-based policy just got some terrific news. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, of MIT, and Michael Kremer of Harvard, were recently awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

This award honors extraordinary people doing extraordinary work to alleviate poverty in developing countries. I heard Esther Duflo speak at the Society for Research on Effective Education, and saw her amazing Ted Talk on the research that won the Nobel (delivered before they knew this was going to happen). I strongly suggest you view her speech, at https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_duflo_social_experiments_to_fight_poverty?language=en

But the importance of this award goes far beyond its recognition of the scholars who received it. It celebrates the same movement toward evidence-based policy represented by the Institute for Education Sciences, Education Innovation Research, the Arnold Foundation, and others in the U.S., the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K., and this blog. It also celebrates the work of researchers in education, psychology, sociology, as well as economics, who are committed to using rigorous research to advance human progress. The Nobel awardees represent the international development wing of this movement, largely funded by the World Bank, the InterAmerica Development Bank, and other international aid organizations.

In her Ted Talk, Esther Duflo explains the grand strategy she and her colleagues pursue. They take major societal problems in developing countries, break them down into solvable parts, and then use randomized experiments to test solutions to those parts. Along with Dr. Banerjee (her husband) and Michael Kremer, she first did a study that found that ensuring that students in India had textbooks made no difference in learning. They then successfully tested a plan to provide inexpensive tutors and, later, computers, to help struggling readers in India (Banerjee, Cole, Duflo, & Linden, 2007). One fascinating series of studies tested the cost-effectiveness of various educational treatments in developing countries. The winner? Curing children of intestinal worms. Based on this and other research, the Carter Foundation embarked on a campaign that has virtually eradicated Guinea worm worldwide.

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Dr. Duflo and her colleagues later tested variations in programs to provide malaria-inhibiting bed nets in developing countries in which malaria is the number one killer of children, especially those less than five years old. Were outcomes best if bed nets (retail cost= $3) were free, or only discounted to varying degrees? Many economists and policy makers worried that people who paid nothing for bed nets would not value them, or might use them for other purposes. But the randomized study found that without question, free bed nets were more often obtained and used than were discounted ones, potentially saving thousands of children’s lives.

For those of us who work in evidence-based education, the types of experiments being done by the Nobel laureates are entirely familiar, even though they have practical aspects quite different from the ones we encounter when we work in the U.S. or the U.K., for example. However, we are far from a majority among researchers in our own countries, and we face major struggles to continue to insist on randomized experiments as the criterion of effectiveness. I’m sure people working in international development face equal challenges. This is why this Nobel Prize in economics means a lot to all of us. People pay a lot of attention to Nobel Prizes, and there isn’t one in educational research, so having a Nobel shared by economists whose main contribution is in the use of randomized experiments to solve questions of great practical and policy importance, including studies in education itself, may be the closest we’ll ever get to Nobel recognition for the principle espoused by many in applied research in psychology, sociology, and education, as it is by many economists.

Nobel Prizes are often used to send a message, to support important new developments in research as well as to recognize deserving researchers who are leaders in this area. This was clearly the case with this award. The Nobel announcement makes it clear how the work of the Nobel laureates has transformed their field, to the point that “their experimental research methodologies entirely dominate developmental economics.”  I hope this event will add further credibility and awareness to the idea that rigorous evidence is a key lever for change that matters in the lives of people

 

Reference

Banerjee, A., Cole, S., Duflo, E., & Linden, L. (2007). Remedying education: Evidence from two randomized experiments in India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122 (3), 1235-1264.

 

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.

On Reviews of Research in Education

Not so long ago, every middle class home had at least one encyclopedia. Encyclopedias were prominently displayed, a statement to all that this was a house that valued learning. People consulted the encyclopedia to find out about things of interest to them. Those who did not own encyclopedias found them in the local library, where they were heavily used. As a kid, I loved everything about encyclopedias. I loved to read them, but also loved their musty small, their weight, and their beautiful maps and photos.

There were two important advantages of an encyclopedia. First, it was encyclopedic, so users could be reasonably certain that whatever information they wanted was in there somewhere. Second, they were authoritative. Whatever it said in the encyclopedia was likely to be true, or at least carefully vetted by experts.

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In educational research, and all scientific fields, we have our own kinds of encyclopedias. One consists of articles in journals that publish reviews of research. In our field, the Review of Educational Research plays a pre-eminent role in this, but there are many others. Reviews are hugely popular. Invariably, review journals have a much higher citation count than even the most esteemed journals focusing on empirical research. In addition to journals, reviews appear I edited volumes, in online compendia, in technical reports, and other sources. At Johns Hopkins, we produce a bi-weekly newsletter, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB; https://beibindex.wordpress.com/) that summarizes recent research in education. Two years ago we looked at analytics to find out the favorite articles from BEiB. Although BEiB mostly summarizes individual studies, almost all of its favorite articles were summaries of the findings of recent reviews.

Over time, RER and other review journals become “encyclopedias” of a sort.  However, they are not encyclopedic. No journal tries to ensure that key topics will all be covered over time. Instead, journal reviewers and editors evaluate each review sent to them on its own merits. I’m not criticizing this, but it is the way the system works.

Are reviews in journals authoritative? They are in one sense, because reviews accepted for publication have been carefully evaluated by distinguished experts on the topic at hand. However, review methods vary widely and reviews are written for many purposes. Some are written primarily for theory development, and some are really just essays with citations. In contrast, one category of reviews, meta-analyses, go to great lengths to locate and systematically include all relevant citations. These are not pure types, and most meta-analyses have at least some focus on theory building and discussion of current policy or research issues, even if their main purpose is to systematically review a well-defined set of studies.

Given the state of the art of research reviews in education, how could we create an “encyclopedia” of evidence from all sources on the effectiveness of programs and practices designed to improve student outcomes? The goal of such an activity would be to provide readers with something both encyclopedic and authoritative.

My colleagues and I created two websites that are intended to serve as a sort of encyclopedia of PK-12 instructional programs. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org) consists of meta-analyses written by our staff and students, all of which use similar inclusion criteria and review methods. These are used by a wide variety of readers, especially but not only researchers. The BEE has meta-analyses on elementary and secondary reading, reading for struggling readers, writing programs, programs for English learners, elementary and secondary mathematics, elementary and secondary science, early childhood programs, and other topics, so at least as far as achievement outcomes are concerned, it is reasonably encyclopedic. Our second website is Evidence for ESSA, designed more for educators. It seeks to include every program currently in existence, and therefore is truly encyclopedic in reading and mathematics. Sections on social emotional learning, attendance, and science are in progress.

Are the BEE and Evidence for ESSA authoritative as well as encyclopedic? You’ll have to judge for yourself. One important indicator of authoritativeness for the BEE is that all of the meta-analyses are eventually published, so the reviewers for those journals could be considered to be lending authority.

The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) could be considered authoritative, as it is a carefully monitored online publication of the U.S. Department of Education. But is it encyclopedic? Probably not, for two reasons. One is that the WWC has difficulty keeping up with new research. Secondly, the WWC does not list programs that do not have any studies that meet its standards. As a result of both of these, a reader who types in the name of a current program may find nothing at all on it. Is this because the program did not meet WWC standards, or because the WWC has not yet reviewed it? There is no way to tell. Still, the WWC makes important contributions in the areas it has reviewed.

Beyond the websites focused on achievement, the most encyclopedic and authoritative source is Blueprints (www.blueprintsprograms.org). Blueprints focuses on drug and alcohol abuse, violence, bullying, social emotional learning, and other topics not extensively covered in other review sources.

In order to provide readers with easy access to all of the reviews meeting a specified level of quality on a given topic, it would be useful to have a source that briefly describes various reviews, regardless of where they appear. For example, a reader might want to know about all of the meta-analyses that focus on elementary mathematics, or dropout prevention, or attendance. These would include review articles published in scientific journals, technical reports, websites, edited volumes, and so on. To be cited in detail, the reviews should have to meet agreed-upon criteria, including a restriction to experimental-control comparison, a broad and well-documented search for eligible studies, documented efforts to include all studies (published or unpublished) that fall within well-specified parameters (e.g., subjects, grade levels, and start and end dates of studies included). Reviews that meet these standards might be highlighted, though others, including less systematic reviews, should be listed as well, as supplementary resources.

Creating such a virtual encyclopedia would be a difficult but straightforward task. At the end, the collection of rigorous reviews would offer readers encyclopedic, authoritative information on the topics of their interest, as well as providing something more important that no paper encyclopedias ever included: contrasting viewpoints from well-informed experts on each topic.

My imagined encyclopedia wouldn’t have the hypnotic musty smell, the impressive heft, or the beautiful maps and photos of the old paper encyclopedias. However, it would give readers access to up-to-date, curated, authoritative, quantitative reviews of key topics in education, with readable and appealing summaries of what was concluded in qualifying reviews.

Also, did I mention that unlike the encyclopedias of old, it would have to be free?

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.

Do School Districts Really Have Difficulty Meeting ESSA Evidence Standards?

The Center for Educational Policy recently released a report on how school districts are responding to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement that schools seeking school improvement grants select programs that meet ESSA’s strong, moderate, or promising standards of evidence. Education Week ran a story on the CEP report.

The report noted that many states, districts, and schools are taking the evidence requirements seriously, and are looking at websites and consulting with researchers to help them identify programs that meet the standards. This is all to the good.

However, the report also notes continuing problems districts and schools are having finding out “what works.” Two particular problems were cited. One was that districts and schools were not equipped to review research to find out what works. The other was that rural districts and schools found few programs proven effective in rural schools.

I find these concerns astounding. The same concerns were expressed when ESSA was first passed, in 2015. But that was almost four years ago. Since 2015, the What Works Clearinghouse has added information to help schools identify programs that meet the top two ESSA evidence categories, strong and moderate. Our own Evidence for ESSA, launched in February, 2017, has up-to-date information on virtually all PK-12 reading and math programs currently in dissemination. Among hundreds of programs examined, 113 meet ESSA standards for strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness. WWC, Evidence for ESSA, and other sources are available online at no cost. The contents of the entire Evidence for ESSA website were imported into Ohio’s own website on this topic, and dozens of states, perhaps all of them, have informed their districts and schools about these sources.

The idea that districts and schools could not find information on proven programs if they wanted to do so is difficult to believe, especially among schools eligible for school improvement grants. Such schools, and the districts in which they are located, write a lot of grant proposals for federal and state funding. The application forms for school improvement grants always explain the evidence requirements, because that is the law. Someone in every state involved with federal funding knows about the WWC and Evidence for ESSA websites. More than 90,000 unique users have used Evidence for ESSA, and more than 800 more sign on each week.

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As to rural schools, it is true that many studies of educational programs have taken place in urban areas. However, 47 of the 113 programs qualified by Evidence for ESSA were validated in at least one rural study, or a study including a large enough rural sample to enable researchers to separately report program impacts for rural students. Also, almost all widely disseminated programs have been used in many rural schools. So rural districts and schools that care about evidence can find programs that have been evaluated in rural locations, or at least that were evaluated in urban or suburban schools but widely disseminated in rural schools.

Also, it is important to note that if a program was successfully evaluated only in urban or suburban schools, the program still meets the ESSA evidence standards. If no studies of a given outcome were done in rural locations, a rural school in need of better outcomes could, in effect, be asked to choose between a program proven to work somewhere and probably used in dissemination in rural schools, or they could choose a program not proven to work anywhere. Every school and district has to make the best choices for their kids, but if I were a rural superintendent or principal, I’d read up on proven programs, and then go visit some rural schools using that program nearby. Wouldn’t you?

I have no reason to suspect that the CEP survey is incorrect. There are many indications that district and school leaders often do feel that the ESSA evidence rules are too difficult to meet. So what is really going on?

My guess is that there are many district and school leaders who do not want to know about evidence on proven programs. For example, they may have longstanding, positive relationships with representatives of publishers or software developers, or they may be comfortable and happy with the materials and services they are already using, evidence-proven or not. If they do not have evidence of effectiveness that would pass muster with WWC or Evidence for ESSA, the publishers and software developers may push hard on state and district officials, put forward dubious claims for evidence (such as studies with no control groups), and do their best to get by in a system that increasingly demands evidence that they lack. In my experience, district and state officials often complain about having inadequate staff to review evidence of effectiveness, but their concern may be less often finding out what works as it is defending themselves from publishers, software developers, or current district or school users of programs, who maintain that they have been unfairly rated by WWC, Evidence for ESSA, or other reviews. State and district leaders who stand up to this pressure may have to spend a lot of time reviewing evidence or hearing arguments.

On the plus side, at the same time that publishers and software producers may be seeking recognition for their current products, many are also sponsoring evaluations of some of their products that they feel are mostly likely to perform well in rigorous evaluations. Some may be creating new programs that resemble programs that have met evidence standards. If the federal ESSA law continues to demand evidence for certain federal funding purposes, or even to expand this requirement to additional parts of federal grant-making, then over time the ESSA law will have its desired effect, rewarding the creation and evaluation of programs that do meet standards by making it easier to disseminate such programs. The difficulties the evidence movement is experiencing are likely to diminish over time as more proven programs appear, and as federal, state, district, and school leaders get comfortable with evidence.

Evidence-based reform was always going to be difficult, because of the amount of change it entails and the stakes involved. But sooner or later, it is the right thing to do, and leaders who insist on evidence will see increasing levels of learning among their students, at minimal cost beyond what they already spend on untested or ineffective approaches. Medicine went through a similar transition in 1962, when the U.S. Congress first required that medicines be rigorously evaluated for effectiveness and safety. At first, many leaders in the medical profession resisted the changes, but after a while, they came to insist on them. The key is political leadership willing to support the evidence requirement strongly and permanently, so that educators and vendors alike will see that the best way forward is to embrace evidence and make it work for kids.

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.

Why Not the Best?

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the first practical lightbulb. The main problem he faced was in finding a filament that would glow, but not burn out too quickly. To find it, he tried more than 6000 different substances that had some promise as filaments. The one he found was carbonized cotton, which worked far better than all the others (tungsten, which we use now, came much later).

Of course, the incandescent light changed the world. It replaced far more expensive gas lighting systems, and was much more versatile. The lightbulb captured the evening and nighttime hours for every kind of human activity.

blog_9-19-19_lightbulb_500x347Yet if the lightbulb had been an educational innovation, it probably would have been proclaimed a dismal failure. Skeptics would have noted that only one out of six thousand filaments worked. Meta-analysts would have averaged the effect sizes for all 6000 experiments and concluded that the average effect size across the 6000 filaments was only +0.000000001. Hardly worthwhile. If Edison’s experiments were funded by government, politicians would have complained that 5,999 of Edison’s filaments were a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Economists would have computed benefit-cost ratios and concluded that even if Edison’s light worked, the cost of making the first one was astronomical, not to mention the untold cost of setting up electrical generation and wiring systems.

This is all ridiculous, you must be saying. But in the world of evidence-based education, comparable things happen all the time. In 2003, Borman et al. did a meta-analysis of 300 studies of 29 comprehensive (whole-school) reform designs. They identified three as having solid evidence of effectiveness. Rather than celebrating and disseminating those three (and continuing research and development to identify more of them), the U.S. Congress ended its funding for dissemination of comprehensive school reform programs. Turn out the light before you leave, Mr. Edison!

Another common practice in education is to do meta-analyses averaging outcomes across an entire category of programs or policies, and ignoring the fact that some distinctively different and far more effective programs are swallowed up in the averages. A good example is charter schools. Large-scale meta-analyses by Stanford’s CREDO (2013) found that the average effect sizes for charter schools are effectively zero. A 2015 analysis found better, but still very small effect sizes in urban districts (ES = +0.04 in reading, +0.05 in math). The What Works Clearinghouse published a 2010 review that found slight negative effects of middle school charters. These findings are useful in disabusing us of the idea that charter schools are magic, and get positive outcomes just because they are charter schools. However, they do nothing to tell us about extraordinary charter schools using methods that other schools (perhaps including non-charters) could also use. There is more positive evidence relating to “no-excuses” schools, such as KIPP and Success Academies, but among the thousands of charters that now exist, is this the only type of charter worth replicating? There must be some bright lights among all these bulbs.

As a third example, there are now many tutoring programs used in elementary reading and math with struggling learners. The average effect sizes for all forms of tutoring average about +0.30, in both reading and math. But there are reading tutoring approaches with effect sizes of +0.50 or more. If these programs are readily available, why would schools adopt programs less effective than the best? The average is useful for research purposes, and there are always considerations of costs and availability, but I would think any school would want to ignore the average for all types of programs and look into the ones that can do the most for their kids, at a reasonable cost.

I’ve often heard teachers and principals point out that “parents send us the best kids they have.” Yes they do, and for this reason it is our responsibility as educators to give those kids the best programs we can. We often describe educating students as enlightening them, or lifting the lamp of learning, or fiat lux. Perhaps the best way to fiat a little more lux is to take a page from Edison, the great luxmeister: Experiment tirelessly until we find what works. Then use the best we have.

Reference

Borman, G.D., Hewes, G. M., Overman, L.T., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 73(2), 125-230.

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.

 

Superman and Statistics

In the 1978 movie “Superman,” Lois Lane, star journalist, crash-lands in a helicopter on top of a 50-story skyscraper.   The helicopter is hanging by a strut to the edge of the roof, and Lois is hanging on to a microphone cord.  Finally, the cord breaks, and Lois falls 45 floors before (of course) she is swooped up by Superman, who flies her back to the roof and sets her down gently. Then he says to her:

“I hope this doesn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it is the safest form of travel.”

She faints.

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Don’t let the superhero thing fool you: The “S” is for “statistics.”

I’ve often had the very same problem whenever I do public speaking.  As soon as I mention statistics, some of the audience faints dead away. Or perhaps they are falling asleep. But either way, saying the word “statistics” is not usually a good way to make friends and influence people.

 

The fact is, most people don’t like statistics.  Or more accurately, people don’t like statistics except when the statistical findings agree with their prejudices.  At an IES meeting several years ago, a well-respected superintendent was invited to speak to what is perhaps the nerdiest, most statistically-minded group in all of education, except for an SREE conference.  He actually said, without the slightest indication of humor or irony, that “GOOD research is that which confirms what I have always believed.  BAD research is that which disagrees with what I have always believed.”  I’d guess that the great majority of superintendents and other educational leaders would agree, even if few would say so out loud to an IES meeting.

If educational leaders only attend to statistics that confirm their prior beliefs, one might argue that, well, at least they do attend to SOME research.  But research in an applied field like education is of value only if it leads to positive changes in practice.  If influential educators only respect research that confirms their previous beliefs, then they never change their practices or policies because of research, and policies and practices stay the same forever, or change only due to politics, marketing, and fads. Which is exactly how most change does in fact happen in education.  If you wonder why educational outcomes change so slowly, if at all, you need look no further than this.

Why is it that educators pay so little attention to research, whatever its outcomes, much in contrast to the situation in many other fields?  Some people argue that, unlike medicine, where doctors are well trained in research, educators lack such training.  Yet agriculture makes far more practical use of evidence than education does, and most farmers, while outstanding in their fields, are not known for their research savvy.

Farmers are, however, very savvy business owners, and they can clearly see that their financial success depends on using seeds, stock, methods, fertilizers, and insecticides proven to be effective, cost-effective, and sustainable.  Similarly, research plays a crucial role in technology, engineering, materials science, and every applied field in which better methods, with proven outcomes, lead to increased profits.

So one major reason for limited use of research in education is that adopting proven methods in education rarely leads to enhanced profit.  Even in parts of the educational enterprise where profit is involved, economic success still depends far more on politics, marketing, and fads, than on evidence. Outcomes of adopting proven programs or practices may not have an obvious impact on overall school outcomes because achievement is invariably tangled up with factors such as social class of children and schools’ abilities to attract skilled teachers and principals.  Ask parents whether they would rather have their child to go to a school in which all students have educated, upper-middle class parents, or to a school that uses proven instructional strategies in every subject and grade level.  The problem is that there are only so many educated, upper-middle class parents to go around, so schools and parents often focus on getting the best possible demographics in their school rather than on adopting proven teaching methods.

How can education begin to make the rapid, irreversible improvements characteristic of agriculture, technology, and medicine?  The answer has to take into account the fundamental fact that education is a government monopoly.  I’m not arguing whether or not this is a good thing, but it is certain to be true for many years, perhaps forever.  The parts of education that are not part of government are private schools, and these are very few in number (charter schools are funded by government, of course).

Because government funds nearly all schools, it has both the responsibility and the financial capacity to do whatever is feasible to make schools as effective as it possibly can.  This is true of all levels of government, federal, state, and local.  Because it is in charge of all federal research funding, the federal government is the most logical organization to lead any efforts to increase use of proven programs and practices in education, but forward-looking state and local government could also play a major role if they chose to do so.

Government can and must take on the role that profit plays in other research-focused fields, such as agriculture, medicine, and engineering.   As I’ve argued many times, government should use national funding to incentivize schools to adopt proven programs.  For example, the federal government could provide funding to schools to enable them to pay the costs of adopting programs found to be effective in rigorous research.  Under ESSA, it is already doing this, but right now the main focus is only on Title I school improvement grants.   These go to schools that are among the lowest performers in their states.  School improvement is a good place to start, but it affects a modest number of extremely disadvantaged schools.  Such schools do need substantial funding and expertise to make the substantial gains they are asked to make, but they are so unlike the majority of Title I schools that they are not sufficient examples of what evidence-based reform could achieve.  Making all Title I schools eligible for incentive funding to implement proven programs, or at least working toward this goal over time, would arouse the interest and enthusiasm of a much greater set of schools, virtually all of which need major changes in practices to reach national standards.

To make this policy work, the federal government would need to add considerably to the funding it provides for educational research and development, and it would need to rigorously evaluate programs that show the greatest promise to make large, pragmatically important differences in schools’ outcomes in key areas, such as reading, mathematics, science, and English for English learners.  One way to do this cost-effectively would be to allow districts (or consortia of districts) to put forward pairs of matched schools for potential funding.   Districts or consortia awarded grants might then be evaluated by federal contractors, who would randomly assign one school in each pair to receive the program, while the pair members not selected would serve as a control group.  In this way, programs that had been found effective in initial research might have their evaluations replicated many times, at a very low evaluation cost.  This pair evaluation design could greatly increase the number of schools using proven programs, and could add substantially to the set of programs known to be effective.  This design could also give many more districts experience with top-quality experimental research, building support for the idea that research is of value to educators and students.

Getting back to Superman and Lois Lane, it is only natural to expect that Lois might be reluctant to get on another helicopter anytime soon, no matter what the evidence says.  However, when we are making decisions on behalf of children, it’s not enough to just pay attention to our own personal experience.  Listen to Superman.  The evidence matters.

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.

Hummingbirds and Horses: On Research Reviews

Once upon a time, there was a very famous restaurant, called The Hummingbird.   It was known the world over for its unique specialty: Hummingbird Stew.  It was expensive, but customers were amazed that it wasn’t more expensive. How much meat could be on a tiny hummingbird?  You’d have to catch dozens of them just for one bowl of stew.

One day, an experienced restauranteur came to The Hummingbird, and asked to speak to the owner.  When they were alone, the visitor said, “You have quite an operation here!  But I have been in the restaurant business for many years, and I have always wondered how you do it.  No one can make money selling Hummingbird Stew!  Tell me how you make it work, and I promise on my honor to keep your secret to my grave.  Do you…mix just a little bit?”

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The Hummingbird’s owner looked around to be sure no one was listening.   “You look honest,” he said. “I will trust you with my secret.  We do mix in a bit of horsemeat.”

“I knew it!,” said the visitor.  “So tell me, what is the ratio?”

“One to one.”

“Really!,” said the visitor.  “Even that seems amazingly generous!”

“I think you misunderstand,” said the owner.  “I meant one hummingbird to one horse!”

In education, we write a lot of reviews of research.  These are often very widely cited, and can be very influential.  Because of the work my colleagues and I do, we have occasion to read a lot of reviews.  Some of them go to great pains to use rigorous, consistent methods, to minimize bias, to establish clear inclusion guidelines, and to follow them systematically.  Well- done reviews can reveal patterns of findings that can be of great value to both researchers and educators.  They can serve as a form of scientific inquiry in themselves, and can make it easy for readers to understand and verify the review’s findings.

However, all too many reviews are deeply flawed.  Frequently, reviews of research make it impossible to check the validity of the findings of the original studies.  As was going on at The Hummingbird, it is all too easy to mix unequal ingredients in an appealing-looking stew.   Today, most reviews use quantitative syntheses, such as meta-analyses, which apply mathematical procedures to synthesize findings of many studies.  If the individual studies are of good quality, this is wonderfully useful.  But if they are not, readers often have no easy way to tell, without looking up and carefully reading many of the key articles.  Few readers are willing to do this.

Recently, I have been looking at a lot of recent reviews, all of them published, often in top journals.  One published review only used pre-post gains.  Presumably, if the reviewers found a study with a control group, they would have ignored the control group data!  Not surprisingly, pre-post gains produce effect sizes far larger than experimental-control, because pre-post analyses ascribe to the programs being evaluated all of the gains that students would have made without any particular treatment.

I have also recently seen reviews that include studies with and without control groups (i.e., pre-post gains), and those with and without pretests.  Without pretests, experimental and control groups may have started at very different points, and these differences just carry over to the posttests.  Accepting this jumble of experimental designs, a review makes no sense.  Treatments evaluated using pre-post designs will almost always look far more effective than those that use experimental-control comparisons.

Many published reviews include results from measures that were made up by program developers.  We have documented that analyses using such measures produce outcomes that are two, three, or sometimes four times those involving independent measures, even within the very same studies (see Cheung & Slavin, 2016). We have also found far larger effect sizes from small studies than from large studies, from very brief studies rather than longer ones, and from published studies rather than, for example, technical reports.

The biggest problem is that in many reviews, the designs of the individual studies are never described sufficiently to know how much of the (purported) stew is hummingbirds and how much is horsemeat, so to speak. As noted earlier, readers often have to obtain and analyze each cited study to find out whether the review’s conclusions are based on rigorous research and how many are not. Many years ago, I looked into a widely cited review of research on achievement effects of class size.  Study details were lacking, so I had to find and read the original studies.   It turned out that the entire substantial effect of reducing class size was due to studies of one-to-one or very small group tutoring, and even more to a single study of tennis!   The studies that reduced class size within the usual range (e.g., comparing reductions from 24 to 12) had very small achievement  impacts, but averaging in studies of tennis and one-to-one tutoring made the class size effect appear to be huge. Funny how averaging in a horse or two can make a lot of hummingbirds look impressive.

It would be great if all reviews excluded studies that used procedures known to inflate effect sizes, but at bare minimum, reviewers should be routinely required to include tables showing critical details, and then analyzed to see if the reported outcomes might be due to studies that used procedures suspected to inflate effects. Then readers could easily find out how much of that lovely-looking hummingbird stew is really made from hummingbirds, and how much it owes to a horse or two.

References

Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. (2016). How methodological features affect effect sizes in education. Educational Researcher, 45 (5), 283-292.

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.