Can teaching be simplified?

Technology that simplifies teaching by providing teachers with “off-the-shelf” lessons may increase pupil achievement, particularly if the teachers are supported in using them, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

The study, conducted by Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin, provided middle school maths teachers with online lessons from the Mathalicious curriculum – an inquiry-based maths curriculum for grades 6 to 12 (Years 7 to 13) grounded in real-world topics and situations. Maths teachers from 170 schools across Virginia, US, took part and were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: full treatment (online access to Mathalicious lessons along with supports to promote their use); lesson-only (online access to Mathalicious lessons only); or control (business-as-usual).

While positive effects on pupil achievement in maths were seen in both the full treatment and lesson-only conditions, results were only significant for the full-treatment group. Providing teachers with online access to the lessons along with supports to promote their use increased pupil maths achievement by an effect size of +0.09 (p<.05). Test scores for pupils in the lesson-only group were non-significantly higher than those of the control group (effect size = +0.04).

Source: Can Online Off-The-Shelf Lessons Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence from A Field Experiment (January 2017), National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), NBER Working Paper No. 22398

What does the evidence say about technology use?

New educational technology programmes are being released faster than researchers can evaluate them. The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US has written a working paper, Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review, which discusses the evidence to date on the use of technology in the classroom, with the goal of finding decision-relevant patterns.

Maya Escueta and colleagues compiled publicly available quantitative research that used either randomised controlled trials or regression discontinuity designs (where pupils qualify for inclusion in a programme based on a cut-off score at pre-test). All studies had to examine the effects of an ed-tech intervention on any education-related outcome. Therefore, the paper included not only the areas of technology access, computer-assisted learning and online courses, but also the less-often-studied technology-based behavioural interventions.

Authors found that:

  • Access to technology may or may not improve academic achievement at the K-12 level (Years 1–13), but does have a positive impact on the academic achievement of higher education students (ES=+0.14).
  • Computer-assisted learning, when equipped with personalisation features, was an effective strategy, especially in maths.
  • Behavioural intervention software, such as text-message reminders or e-messages instructing parents how to practise reading with their children, showed positive effects at all levels of education, and was also a cost-effective approach. Four main uses for behavioural intervention software emerged: encouraging parental involvement in early learning activities, communication between the school and parents, successfully transitioning into and through higher education, and creating mindset interventions. Research is recommended to determine the areas where behavioural intervention software is most impactful.
  • Online learning courses had the least amount of research to examine and showed the least promise of the four areas. However, when online courses were accompanied by in-person teaching, the effect sizes increased to scores comparable to fully in-person courses.

 Source: Education technology: an evidence-based review (August 2017), National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 23744

The effects of head teacher training on pupil achievement

An NBER Working Paper examines the impact of implementing management training for head teachers on pupil achievement. The management training focused on lesson planning, data-driven teaching and teacher observation and coaching (approximately 300 hours over two years). Using a school-level randomised experiment, 58 schools in Houston, Texas, were randomised to receive either the training intervention or to serve as a business-as-usual control group.

The study found that offering management training to head teachers led to increased test scores across low-stakes tests in a range of subjects in year one (effect size = +0.19). For high-stakes test scores in maths and reading, the effect size was lower (+0.10). However, the training intervention had no impact on high-stakes tests in year two.

The training was most beneficial for head teachers who were less experienced, had better maths skills, had more internal locus of control, had higher levels of “grit” and remained in the school for both years of the study.

The intervention showed most impact on teachers in the schools who were more experienced and more educated. The intervention showed most impact for pupils who were new to the school, white or Hispanic and economically well-off.

Source: Management and student achievement: Evidence from a randomized field experiment (May 2017), NBER Working Paper No. 23437, National Bureau of Economic Research


Unhealthy school lunches nibble away academic performance

A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper looks at the effect of offering healthier school lunches on end-of-year test scores for pupils in California.

Michael L Anderson and colleagues analysed data collected over a five-year period (academic years 2008/2009 to 2012/2013) from around 9,700 schools that reported test scores on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting exam, a state-wide test given to all pupils in grades 2 to 11 (Years 3 to 13). In order to determine the link between food quality and pupil achievement, they also collected data from the California Department of Education on school districts’ meal vendors for the same time span. Over that five-year period, about 12% of California schools contracted an outside company to provide lunch for at least one school year. The nutritional value of the school lunch menus was analysed by nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute using the Healthy Eating Index.

The results of the study found that in years when schools offered a healthy lunch menu, pupil test scores were on average higher (effect size +0.03 to +0.04). In addition, test scores for pupils who qualified for reduced-price or free school lunches, (and therefore more likely to eat the healthy lunches), increased by about 40% in comparison to pupils who didn’t receive free school lunches.  The positive effect of healthy lunches on academic achievement persisted for the duration of a long-term contract.

Source: School lunch quality and academic performance (March 2017), NBER Working Paper No. 23218, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Do computers have a negative effect on children’s social development?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports the findings from a large-scale randomised controlled trial that explores whether owning a home computer has a negative effect on children’s social development.

The study included 1,123 students in grades 6-10 (Years 7-11) in 15 different schools across California. Students were eligible to take part in the trial only if they did not already have a computer at home. Half were then randomly selected to receive free computers, while the other half served as the control group. Surveys were conducted with the students and schools at the start of the school year to collect data on child and household characteristics and school participation. Follow-up surveys were then administered at the end of the school year, and the data compared to establish any causal evidence.

As predicted, Robert W Fairlie and Ariel Kalil found that having computers at home did increase the amount of time that children spent on social networking sites and email as well as for games and other entertainment. However, rather than being socially isolating, children in the treatment group communicated with 1.57 more friends per week than children in the control group, and spent 0.72 more hours with their friends in person. They also found no evidence that the children who received a computer were less likely to participate in sports teams or after-school clubs, or spend any less time in these activities.

Source: The effects of computers on children’s social development and school participation: evidence from a randomized control experiment (December 2016), NBER Working Paper No. 22907, The National Bureau of Economic Research

Specialist teachers in primary schools

Would primary schools be more successful if, like secondary schools, they used specialist teachers for particular classes?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports on an experiment that tried to establish just that. In Houston, Texas, 50 elementary schools were randomised into treatment or control groups. Treatment schools altered their timetables to have teachers specialise in subjects such as maths, science, social studies, and reading based on each teacher’s strengths (assessed by the school principal). A class might be taught by one teacher for maths and science, and another for reading and social studies. Other classes had one teacher for maths, another for reading, and a third for science and social studies.

The results were negative. In the first year, schools with specialist teachers saw an effect size of -0.07 on maths and reading achievement. Over the first two years, the effect size was -0.05 for maths and -0.04 for reading, with the maths result statistically significant. For children in special education, the results were even worse, with an impact of -0.15 for reading and -0.20 for maths.

A teacher survey measured views on lesson planning, teacher relationships with students, enjoyment of teaching, and teaching strategies. Teachers in treatment schools were significantly less likely to report providing tailored instruction for their students. All other survey outcomes on teaching strategy were statistically identical between treatment and control.

Source: The ‘Pupil’ Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools, National Bureau of Economic Research (2016)