Early Intervention Research

A key issue for K12 performance improvement seems to be directing sufficient resources at early interventions to prevent students from falling so far behind that they can never catch up to reach proficiency. The ACT organization has done significant research on this issue; a package of its latest reports can be found here. Their key finding is that it is extremely difficult for students who fall behind on proficiency in elementary and middle school to catch up and reach the college and career ready benchmark on the Grade 11 ACT. This highlights how critical it is for overall district achievement to focus on elementary and middle school performance, and on interventions that actually work when students fall behind.

This report from CDE makes it clear that these interventions have to happen in elementary school (as any high school teacher will gladly tell you). This report from the ACT organization makes the same point. Clearly, we have to fix our processes to improve our performance in this area.

The National Academy of Sciences has just published an in-depth “unified framework” for educating children from birth to age 8. It is long, but a very useful reference.

For example, Response to Intervention is a widely used methodology for identifying and providing extra support to struggling students. As you can see in this literature review, a number of studies have confirmed its potential benefits. Yet this recent comprehensive assessment by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences found that in practice, the studied RTI interventions for reading improvement fell well short of their potential (also see this story about the study).

Here is another example. The Jeffco board requested an analysis of the implementation of the READ Act -- specifically, they asked for what it would take to increase the percentage of Jeffco third graders who score proficient or higher on the Reading TCAP test from 80% to 85%. This is critical, as most people will acknowledge that if a child can't read, he or she will struggle to learn.

We dug into the data to provide parents with this background analysis of Grade 3 reading issues in Jeffco, which they could use to evaluate the District's response to the Board's request. And here is the District's presentation to the Board at the March 6, 2014 meeting on this issue.

Additionally, here is the just published (and very comprehensive) research synthesis on improving reading outcomes from the Institute of Education Sciences, and here is another excellent research synthesis on improving reading between kindergarten and Grade 3 from the Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse. Here is Colorado Succeeds' latest report on the implementation of the READ Act. And last but not least, here is a column from the Financial Times on America’s reading problem.

Early Childhood Education and Full Day Kindergarten

Early childhood education, particularly for at-risk children, is one of those ideas that immediately make intuitive sense. It is also clear from the latest research on brain development that a child's earliest years are critical. For example, this report provides an overview of a very comprehensive approach to early intervention taken by a Chicago area school district. And this one shows the positive impact of Promise Academy and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Finally, this new report from the Brookings Institution shows how much we can achieve by intervening "early and often." Closely related to this is another report, on helping parents to more effectively help their children.

However, this analysis of the effectiveness of Head Start by the What Works Clearinghouse (part of the Institute of Educational Sciences at the US Department of Education) shows that, unfortunately, spending a lot of money on a program does not guarantee that it will work. And when the Brookings Institution, Washington DC's oldest and most respected left-of-center public policy research organization, starts to raise red flags about early childhood education (ECE), I sit up and take notice. Here is the Brooking's issue summary, and here is their recent Congressional testimony on the administration's ECE proposal. And here is a November 2015 piece of research on ECE from the Brookings Institution, and here is another one from February 2016.

A comprehensive new long-term study of ECE impacts in Tennessee has also raised a lot questions -- and plenty of reactions -- about the long term effects of early childhood education programs. Read about the report and different reactions to it here, here, here, here, and here.

Later, a broader comparison of ECE programs across the United States found gaps in their quality and effectiveness. Even more recently, the American Enterprise Institute published another comprehensive overview of the research on the effectiveness of pre-K programs.

Besides the controversy over ECE, there is also disagreement over the effectiveness of full day kindergarten.

Expanding full-day kindergarten in Jeffco became an issue during that district’s (2014/2015) budget process. Here is the SPAC minority report on this issue. Here and here are two meta-analyses of multiple studies of the efficacy of these programs, here and here are two single studies of full day kindergarten by the RAND Corporation, and here is one by a trio of researchers from the US Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Finally, here is the Jeffco staff's response to the Board's request for a background briefing on the efficacy of full-day kindergarten. We found it interesting that the district staff report did not mention any of these studies; rather, it only mentioned studies that supported the efficacy of full-day kindergarten (e.g., studies from 2005 and 2008).

Here is an OpEd on the full day kindergarten controversy in Jeffco, and here is the link to the xlsx data set (from CDE/SchoolView/DataLab) that was used in the analysis. The basic issue is that the board majority asked if, after 6 years and $30 million in spending, the full day kindergarten program had actually achieved its goal of improving third grade achievement results. Here's a recent article from Chalkbeat that praises another group for taking the exact same approach. Thanks to a CORA request, here is the Jeffco District Staff's analysis of the effectiveness of its full day kindergarten program (the first analysis done about the impact of a program that has been running for 6 years, and to date cost taxpayers about $30 million). The conclusion? The FDK program had failed to meet its stated goal.

At-Risk Students Research

Some people claim that we can't fix education until we fix poverty, while others believe we can't fix poverty until we fix education. On this issue, we found this short article from EdWeek very thought provoking, on "Five Things Most People Don't Know About Poverty and Student Achievement". And Stanford’s Eric Hanushek has written this very helpful analysis of the Coleman Report, on the 50th anniversary of its publication, highlighting what it did and did not say. This is important background to help understand a lot of the debates in K12 that have followed.

More recently, this debate has become more heated. Education Next published this widely read analysis of whether America faces an education crisis or a poverty crisis. A key underlying issue is the extent to which America’s poverty rate is exceptional in comparison to other nations. This paper and this article argue that it is not. Other research finds that American schools do a worse job of educating students from low socioeconomic status (SES) families than other countries (unfortunately, the same study finds that is also true for students from high SES families). Finally, there is recent research that shows that high quality schools can have a very substantial impact on the educational achievement of students from at-risk backgrounds (see this paper, and this paper).

The Center for American Progress has published an analysis of why some states produce much better achievement results for high poverty students than others. They conclude that commitment to rigorous standards for all students is critical. 2016 is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Coleman Report. Eric Hanushek has published an excellent analysis of how well Coleman’s findings have held up; where they have been right, and where they have been wrong. Both of these new analyses are very clear about a critical point: for students, poverty is not destiny.

North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year agrees. He recently published a powerful column: “Stop Using Parental Involvement as an Excuse”.

That said, poverty still has an undeniable impact, as evidenced by this report on the impact of the sense of despair that holds back too many students.

Whatever your view on this debate, we can all agree that the challenges we face in closing achievement gaps are large; for example, MIT's David Autor has recently published some very thorough, and equally disturbing, research about the differential impact of poverty on boys versus girls, and about the broader issues facing at-risk boys. Both are well worth a read.

But when you look at this analysis, you can see that the economic benefits of closing America's achievement gaps are huge. Another estimate of these benefits comes from the Brookings Institute, one of the country’s oldest (and centrist) think-tanks: "How Much Could We Improve Children's Life Chances by Intervening Early and Often?" by Sawhill and Karpilow. More recently the American Institutes for Research evaluation of comprehensive students support programs in Massachusetts — known as “wrap around zones” has found that after three years they had very significant positive impacts on achievement outcomes — .30 standard deviations in English Language Arts, and .24 standard deviations in Math.

We also need to remember that it is not just in the United States that we confront this problem (although other countries seem to do a better job of meeting this challenge). For example, the OECD has published excellent comparative analysis of the root causes of low student performance around the world (here is the powerpoint, and here is the long report). Another agency has produced a comparable inter-country analysis of the common traits found in at-risk students who succeed — ones they call “academically resilient.”

We also need to recognize that there are programs that can help us meet the needs of at-risk students, and close the achievement gaps they face. For example, here is the NY Times on "Social Program that Work". Here is a research paper about successful programs for at-risk high school students in Toronto.

This new research paper shows how results improve when schools do a better job of focusing on ninth graders during their transition into high school.

Also see this recent article on how Westminster appears to have made great progress in improving F&R students' achievement by switching from a "seat time" to a competency based model of education.

It is also undeniable that some charter schools are delivering very positive results for at-risk students. For example, on the 2013 TCAP, 49% of Jeffco F&R eligible students in Grade 6 were not proficient in math. For students in Grade 7, it was 58%, and for students in Grade 8 it was 64%. In Denver, STRIVE and KIPP charter schools are targeted at serving F&R students. At these schools in 2013, 47% of F&R students in Grade 6 were not proficient in math, 41% in Grade 7, and 39% in Grade 8 -- 25% less than in Jeffco. Moreover, Jeffco's proficiency rates for F&R students have been flat (and dismal) for at least eight years. We look at these results and say that Jeffco should invite STRIVE and KIPP to open middle schools in the district so that it can better serve Jeffco’s F&R students, boost their academic achievement, and hopefully learn lessons we can scale up across our district. In fact, we can make a very strong argument that we have a moral obligation to do so. Especially when this latest analysis from CREDO finds that urban charters are substantially outperforming other schools.

Unfortunately, as this piece of research from the ACT organization makes clear, helping students to catch-up once they've fallen behind gets exponentially more difficult with every passing year. Put differently, in too many cases, we seem to have lost the battle by the end of sixth grade. This has to end -- quite simply, our elementary schools need to be much more focused on having students on grade level when they head off to middle school. This recent paper reviews that the authors call "the educators' dilemma" -- how to do a better job of supporting our FRL eligible students. It is well worth a read. Clearly, as this Brookings’ critique of Title 1 spending shows, there is a lot of room for improvement in the way K12 spends scarce resources to support at-risk students.

Finally, one of the questions we’ve frequently encountered is about the extent of the overlaps between at risk students who are eligible for free and reduced meals, who are English Language Learners, and who are minorities. We crunched the numbers for Jeffco and produced a chart that shows how many students are in one, two, or three of these categories. You can download it as a pdf here.