For as long as I can remember, education has been accused of being stuck in the stone age and resistant to change. You can’t spend a day on the socials without someone lamenting that schools haven’t adapted to the new world and still operate like 20th-century factories. One way out of our morass, these critics say, is for education to work more like medicine. We should be more scientific, and only do things that have been proven effective through rigorous research.
As teachers, we’ve been inundated with this message. A cottage industry has grown up around studying and reporting on what works in education. Whole libraries have been written. Our evaluations are mostly based on whether and how well we implement research-based practices in our classrooms, with principals ticking them off on checklists. It’s no longer acceptable to use the instructional methods our teachers used with us. Professional development focuses on recent research. Educators shame each other on Twitter over what they perceive to be dated and harmful teaching methods. My school has a poster of John Hattie’s effect sizes hanging – of all places – in the teachers’ lounge; we can’t even escape the guy when we’re eating. There’s a What Works Clearinghouse and the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, two resources whose sole purpose is to provide educators with evidence of effective practices.
The message is clear: Teachers make a big difference, and it’s what teachers do that makes the biggest difference. Teachers who use the most effective practices are going to get better results than those who don’t. Just as you would never take a drug that hadn’t been proven effective through rigorous study, we shouldn’t put teachers in classrooms unless they know and will follow the evidence.
Many teachers have understandably jumped onto the evidence-based bandwagon. They want to do best by their students. They want to be effective. They want to make a difference.
But one thing that may be holding teachers back is the rampant hypocrisy practiced by those in power. Hypocrisy, it should be noted, is not an effective practice, and I don’t need John Hattie to do a meta-analysis to tell me so.
If education is going to be evidence-based, then every time those in charge ignore research because it conflicts with their beliefs, or the way things have always been done, or because it costs too much, or it’s politically risky, the whole notion of evidence-based education is undermined and teachers have every reason to ask why they’re being held to a standard that their bosses ignore.
Robert Slavin recently wrote this: Benchmark Assessments: Weighing the Pig More Often?
Here’s an excerpt:
High-quality, large scale randomized evaluations of benchmark assessments are relatively easy to do. Many have in fact been done. Uses of benchmark assessments have been evaluated in elementary reading and math (see www.bestevidence.org). Here is a summary of the findings.
Number of Studies Mean Effect Size Elementary Reading 6 -0.02 Elementary Math 4 .00 Study-weighted mean 10 -0.01
In a rational world, these findings would put an end to benchmark assessments, at least as they are used now. The average outcomes are not just small, they are zero. They use up a lot of student time and district money.”
Despite the lack of evidence supporting these assessments, almost every school district gives them and many states mandate their use. How can you claim to be evidence-based when you do such a thing? How can you expect your teachers to follow the research when you so willfully ignore it?
Those who want education to operate more like medicine might be interested to know that the Centers for Disease Control recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am so that adolescent bodies can get the sleep they need to function at their best. But according to a 2014 study, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools started before 8:30.
If, in the face of clear evidence and a recommendation from as venerable an organization as you’ll find, you can’t do something as simple as swap the starting times of your elementary and high schools because of tradition, or football practices, or after-school jobs, or busing schedules, then your teachers are going to wonder why they should upend their comfortable teaching practices. Leaders who want evidence-based teaching in their classrooms must lead by example by following the evidence even when they’d rather not, because that’s exactly what they’re asking teachers to do.
It’s abundantly clear that recess is good for kids’ wellbeing and their academic performance (some of the research is referenced in this article from Time) and yet even today, many states and schools put strict limits on it. If you’re a teacher who works for a district that doesn’t allow kids recess, then you work for a district that isn’t serious about using evidence. You’d be well within your rights to ask, “If you’re not going to follow the research in your district policies, then why should it in my classroom?”
Of course, maybe school boards and superintendents who ignore evidence are simply following the lead of government officials. When the folks who are running your state ignore evidence, it shouldn’t be a surprise when those who run school districts feel they can do the same. Take retention.
The effect size for retention, John Hattie found, is negative .32. In his book, Visible Learning, he wrote:
“The effects of flunking are immediately traumatic to the children and the retained children do worse academically in the future, with many of them dropping out of school altogether. Incredibly, being retained
has as much to do with children dropping out as does their academic achievement. It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative.”
Despite the one-sided research, 16 states require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Another eight allow for retention but don’t require it. Two more are currently considering legislation that would require retention.
Evidence-based education may, in fact, be the solution we’ve been waiting for. It might lead to better teaching and learning. By doing what the research says, education might make the sort of progress seen in the medical world.
But evidence-based education has no chance to make a difference if the people who make education policies at the state and local level continually ignore the research.
Until they do, evidence-based teaching feels like just another example of people telling teachers to do something they themselves are unwilling to.