EdTakeAways

Education Week
Weighing the Research: What Works, What Doesn't

Although the cries for "evidence" are frequent in the education space, evidence can prove elusive to practitioners: Where is it? How sound is it? What does it tell us about real-life situations? This essay is the first in a series that aims to put the pieces of research together so they can be used by those charged with choosing which policies and practices to implement. The conveners of this project—Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Harvard education professor Heather Hill—have received grant support from the Annenberg Institute for this series.

 

Wanted for the new school year: high-quality remote-learning experiences to engage and benefit all students.

In the current pandemic reality, educators can improve learning, we believe, by finding better ways to use and structure students' work time. That's true whether learning is fully remote via computers, phones, or packets or whether it includes in-person instruction.

When in-person schooling ended abruptly this spring, the learning opportunities then available to students varied enormously. Some students received no distance instruction, and others got a hodgepodge of a synchronous virtual classroom, asynchronous online activities, and worksheets and packets. Educators scrambled to keep a semblance of school going till normal returned.

Of the many worries troubling educators this summer, one of the most pressing is: How do we safeguard students’ mental health as we go back to school?

We know that some students will arrive for the new school year deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic or by ongoing racial injustice in the United States. Others will simply be distressed by the “new normal” of school and community life.

Schools can and should screen for and respond to trauma. But even when trauma is not evident, students benefit from mental-health protection. Making sure teachers have strong relationships with their students provides such protection and fosters a fertile environment for learning.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for school district budgets is bleak. Many states have announced shortfalls for the fiscal year that is just ending in most places and for the new fiscal year as well. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects that states will have $615 billion less over the three fiscal years starting with 2020 than budgeted for in better times.

Unlike the federal government, almost all states have laws that require them to balance their budgets, virtually guaranteeing that governors and state lawmakers will make cuts this fiscal year or the subsequent one in 2021-2022. Policymakers will not be able to spread the economic shock over longer periods of time.

Many more students than usual will return to school this fall having experienced trauma. Some will have witnessed loved ones struggle with a frightening and unpredictable illness and some will even have lost family or friends to COVID-19. Others will have suffered from sudden food and housing insecurity as a result of the swift and deep pandemic-caused recession. Still others will have experienced the killings of George Floyd and others at the hands of police as a trauma or have been affected by destruction in their communities following protests against police violence and racism.

With the COVID-19 school closures, districts and schools are relying on parents to carry out educational activities in their homes. How can districts help parents make the most of this learning time? And are there alternatives to parents as surrogate teachers?

In this series, we have been drawing on high-quality research to answer real-world questions. This is a new world, though, so existing research does not speak directly to the question of parents as educators of school-age children. Still, work both on tutoring and on programs to support parenting can shed light on useful approaches.

Students who struggle will likely struggle more online

The times have dictated school closings and the rapid expansion of online education. Can online lessons replace in-school time?

Clearly online time cannot provide many of the informal social interactions students have at school, but how will online courses do in terms of moving student learning forward? Research to date gives us some clues and also points us to what we could be doing to support students who are most likely to struggle in the online setting.

Culturally responsive teaching, culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally sustaining pedagogy. By any name, it's a very timely topic, brought into the spotlight by a new wave of recognition that the nation's schools have failed too many students of color for far too long. Hopes are high that by better grounding education in students' lives, cultural responsiveness, or just CR, will be the fix we need. As a result, you likely have participated in a CR workshop, used CR materials, or directed your staff to take the CR plunge.

In our last “What Works” essay, we cast serious doubt on the value of teachers analyzing student test data. Studies find the practice on average doesn’t produce student learning gains. We also noted that the practice is widespread, often forming a cornerstone of teachers’ professional learning time.

This raises a question: If this study of student data doesn’t improve schools, what should teachers do with their professional learning time?

This practice arose from a simple logic: To improve student outcomes, teachers should study students’ prior test performance, learn what students struggle with, and then adjust the curriculum or offer students remediation where necessary. By addressing the weaknesses revealed by the test results, overall student achievement would improve.
Welcome to "What Works, What Doesn't." Educators and policymakers want to make good choices for schools and districts. And research can help. For people in charge of schools and classrooms starting with "what the research says" can be critical in navigating the challenges of boosting student learning and creating environments where children thrive. Research brings to bear facts that have been collected and analyzed in purposeful, systematic, and often public ways. Its power to rise above the anecdotal is why people in medicine, business, and every type of public policy increasingly refer to it.