Archive | June, 2014

Reform Reality Check: Just Because Something Works, Doesn’t Mean We Should Do It.

17 Jun

Research in education is a funny business.  You can find support for just about anything you want–whole language or phonics, back to basics or project-based learning, charter schools or public.

John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning and the Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, shows us why.  In his research into what works in education, Hattie did a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to educational achievement.  He looked at over 100 interventions and found that almost all of them produced positive results.  Class size reduction from 30 to 15 students, for example, showed a positive effect size of .2, or about 9 months of learning, which is statistically significant and sounds impressive. What Hattie points out, however, is that we shouldn’t be comparing an intervention’s results to the results if we do no intervention.  We should be comparing it to the results of doing something different.  Class size reduction might sound good, but it’s actually in the bottom half of interventions that produce results.  An intervention must produce an effect size of at least .4, in Hattie’s research, to be at the midline of effectiveness.*

Very few interventions, it turns out, produce negative results.  One that does is retention– a result of -.16.  Seeing that almost no interventions negatively impact a child’s learning, the idea that politicians are actually advocating for a policy that does is unfathomable.  It’s another example of people promoting ideas in education that have very little support in research.

So what does impact achievement the most?  Hattie ranked the interventions in order of effectiveness.  A few interesting ones?  Teacher-student relationship produced an effect size of .72.  

That’s incredible.  And it makes sense.  As Rita Pierson proclaimed in her Ted Talk that went viralkids don’t learn from people they don’t like.

Other interested findings?  Feedback and formative evaluation produced an achievement effect of .73 and .9 respectively.  This also makes sense.  Both are tools used to inform future teaching and learning.  Too bad we seem mostly obsessed with summative evaluation right now, in the form of standardized end-of-year tests.  Placing all of your emphasis on summative evaluation is a little like closing the barn door after the horse is out.  If your teaching wasn’t working, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Overall, Hattie found that only five items show a negative impact on student achievement in research:  mobility, television, retention, being on welfare, and summer vacation.  Of the 95 interventions showing positive results, it’s some of the weakest that are getting the most attention right now, such as charter schools, with an effect size of only .20. (I would add the caveat that this suffers from the problem of lumping all charter schools into one category.  It’s fair to say that some probably produce a far larger effect size, while others may be much more ineffective.  But with such weak overall results, it still begs the question of why there’s so much focus on this one intervention.)

We can’t do them all–we don’t have the money, time, or expertise to invest in every positive intervention.  So the question for educators, parents, and policymakers becomes not, “What can we change that positively impacts student achievement” but “What positively impacts student achievement more than all of the other interventions we can put in place?”


*I do want to throw in a plug for class-sized reduction.  When it was implemented, class sized reduction created a sudden and immediate need for significantly more teachers, more classrooms, more curriculum (teacher’s manuals) etc, which schools often didn’t have.  The result was thousands of teachers hired on emergency credential with very little back ground in teaching or their subject matter, classes taught in closets or other inappropriate rooms, and students and teachers with no learning materials.  With all of these negative competing factors, it’s a wonder that class sized reduction showed any improvement in learning at all.

See “Visible Learning: Part 1” and “Visible Learning: Part 2” to hear Hattie explain his research more in depth.

How Controversial Should Classrooms Get?

10 Jun

It’s hard to imagine anyone protesting the teaching of Lovings vs. Virginia, the landmark supreme court case that struck down the law making it illegal for people classified as “white” and “colored” to marry each other.  It’s a historical event that marked a major step forward in the civil rights movement and the idea that marriage was a “fundamental right” for people that could not be revoked.

But what if a classroom talked about Harvey Milk, the gay rights advocate who was assassinated 11 months after being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  That might be far more controversial.

Part of the role of public education is to create an informed citizenry, one educated not just in math and science and history, but in ethics and morals.  That can cause conflict with parents and families, especially if their beliefs don’t match those of the educators or school.  This conflict comes up again and again in education, such as the abstinence vs. safe-sex controversy, or debate about what the second amendment really means, or evolution vs. creationism.  What constitutes a subject that teachers should take on, and when do they overstep their boundaries?

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

The trouble is that the line is different for everyone.  Case in point: And Tango Makes Three, a nonfiction story about two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who formed a couple and were given an egg to raise, has topped the list of banned books for years.  Critics argue that it promotes the idea that homosexuality in animals is normal, and thus acceptable in humans.  Some schools have banned the book outright, or moved it to restricted sections of their library where only parents can check a text out.  On the other hand, supporters of the book say it shouldn’t be censored because it’s telling a true story, and it supports the idea of strong family bonds.

One way we to look at potentially controversial topics is through the lens of tolerance.  Schools have a responsibility to keep students safe–emotionally as well as physically–and part of that responsibility is played out in how we treat one another.  From kindergarten through high school, we teach children that you have a duty to be kind and respectful to all people, whether you like and agree with them or not.  Books like And Tango Makes Three help promote tolerance.  All schools have children who live in alternative families–two dads or two moms, grandparents as the primary caregivers, single father, etc.  It’s important that those students both feel connected to school and that other children are respectful of their home lives.

The hot-button issues may change, but the question of what schools should teach our children will remain controversial.  And teachers shouldn’t have total freedom in what they teach–just look at what happened in a 4th grade science class when this teacher was allowed to impose his or her own views:


But for some controversial topics, we should look at the outcome of education and say, “Will this lead to a more tolerant and kinder classroom and school?” If the answer is yes, let that be our guide.


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