What works for preschoolers?

A new systematic review of research on early childhood programmes in Educational Research Review has been published. The paper seeks to identify effective approaches capable of improving literacy and language outcomes for preschoolers.

Researchers from The Institute for Effective Education (IEE) and The Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) applied consistent standards to determine the strength of evidence supporting a variety of approaches, which fell into two main categories: comprehensive approaches, which include phonemic awareness, phonics, and other skills along with child-initiated activities, and developmental–constructivist approaches that focus on child-initiated activities with little direct teaching of early literacy skills. Inclusion criteria included use of randomised or matched control groups, evidence of initial equality, a minimum study duration of 12 weeks, and valid measures of literacy and language.

Thirty-two studies evaluating 22 programmes found that early childhood programmes that have a balance of skill-focused and child-initiated activities had significant evidence of positive literacy and language outcomes at the end of preschool and on kindergarten (Year 1) follow-up measures. Effects on both types of measures were smaller and not statistically significant for developmental-constructivist programmes.

Source: Literacy and Language Outcomes of Comprehensive and Developmental-Constructivist Approaches to Early Childhood Education: A Systematic Review (2016), Educational Research Review.

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

A new report, published by the Education Endowment Foundation, has described a randomised controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness of a programme that aims to make science lessons more conceptually challenging, more practical, and more interactive. The report found the approach, called Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS), appeared to have a positive impact on attainment.

The trial involved 41 schools in England, 20 acting as a control group, with 655 Year 5 pupils from the other 21 schools receiving the intervention. Their teachers received four days of professional development across 18 months, with training in a repertoire of TDTS strategies aiming to encourage pupils to use higher order thinking skills. For example, pupils are posed ‘Big Questions’, such as ‘How do you know that the earth is a sphere?’ that are used to stimulate discussion about scientific topics and the principles of scientific enquiry. The teachers were also given time to work on TDTS with colleagues.

The evaluation, carried out by the IEE, found that overall Year 5 pupils in schools using the approach made approximately three additional months’ progress. The programme had a particularly positive effect on girls and on pupils with low prior attainment, as well as a positive impact on pupils’ attitudes to science, science lessons, and practical work in particular.

National test data will be used to assess the English and mathematics outcomes of participating pupils and to measure the long-term impact of the approach, and a final report will follow in 2016.

The study is one of ten new reports published by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Source: Thinking, Doing, Talking Science: Evaluation Report and Executive Summary (2015), Education Endowment Foundation.

Success in evidence-based reform: The importance of failure

The latest blog post from Robert Slavin, a Professor in the IEE and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, considers the large number of randomised experiments evaluating educational programmes that find few achievement effects. This is a problem that will take on increasing significance as results from the first cohort of the US Investing in Innovation (i3) grants are released.

At the same time, the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK, much like i3, will also begin to report outcomes. It’s possible that the majority of these projects will fail to produce significant positive effects in rigorous, well-conducted evaluations. However, there is much to be learned in the process. For example, the i3 process is producing a great deal of information about what works and what does not, what gets implemented and what does not, and the match between schools’ needs and programmes’ approaches.

Tailoring evidence-based reform to different problems

Robert Slavin, professor at the Institute for Effective Education and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, focuses his latest blog post not just on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but on the sometimes harder-to-define problems of education, such as managing resources and cultivating relationships.

He says, “Is there anyone out there who thinks that it is not important to identify effective and replicable approaches to teaching reading, algebra, and all the other relatively easy-to-define, easy-to-measure problems of education? Yet solving these does still leave some very important but less-well-defined problems that may take different approaches. These approaches should still be informed by evidence, but perhaps different types of evidence from the design-build-evaluate-disseminate model that usually leads to proven and replicable approaches to reading or algebra, if anything does.”

Innovation in education and medicine

“Education research is as likely as medical research to lead to profound breakthroughs in practice and outcomes in the coming years.” That is the conclusion of the latest blog post from Robert Slavin, professor in the IEE and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, in which he discusses similarities and differences in the way evidence affects, or could affect, education and medicine.

To support his conclusion, Slavin offers several reasons why, with greater support, education research could have at least as profound an impact on education outcomes as medicine or public health do on health outcomes. For example, he says, “Education research is easier to do than medical research. The unlikelihood of serious negative side effects is one reason. Another is that because pretests in education are so highly correlated with post-tests, we can accurately predict what students would have achieved without treatment, making it easier to do studies.” Ultimately, Slavin says, “When we build up a stock of proven programs and have the support of government for using them, watch out. Education could show medicine a thing or two about how to improve outcomes on a national scale using rigorous research and innovation.”

A computer is not enough

Researchers from the US National Bureau of Economic Research have published a new working paper that explores how important access to a home computer is to the educational achievement of children. They found no effects, either positive or negative, on a range of outcomes.

The authors conducted a randomised controlled trial with 1,123 pupils aged 11–16 without home computers from 15 schools across California. In the largest ever experiment involving the provision of free home computers, half of the pupils were randomly selected to receive free computers, while the other half served as the control group. The goal of the study was to evaluate the effects of home computers alone, so no training or other assistance was provided to the pupils who received the free computers.

At the end of the school year, data from the schools was used to measure the impact of the home computers on numerous educational outcomes. Findings showed that, although computer ownership and use increased substantially, there were no effects on grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance, or disciplinary actions in the experimental group.

Robert Slavin, Professor at the IEE, discussed a similar topic in a March blog post about Sugata Mitra’s “hole in the wall” experiment, in which he made a computer freely available to children in a Delhi slum. In his post, Slavin says, “If access to computers were decisive, middle-class children, at least, would be gaining rapidly. Admittedly, the technology itself keeps getting better and faster and easier to use, but from thirty years of experience in the developed world, it seems unlikely that access alone will lead children to become wise and capable.”

Source: Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Home Computers on Academic Achievement among Schoolchildren (2013), NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research).