Can schools help prevent childhood obesity?

A study published in The BMJ tests the effectiveness of a school and family based healthy lifestyle intervention (WAVES) in preventing childhood obesity.

Almost 1,500 pupils, aged five- and six-years-old, from 54 primary schools in the West Midlands took part in a randomised controlled trial of the WAVES programme. The twelve-month intervention encouraged healthy eating and physical activity, and included an additional 30 minutes of daily physical activity at school and a six-week programme with a local premiership football club.

Children’s measurements – including weight, height, percentage body fat, waist circumference, skinfold thickness and blood pressure – were taken when they started the trial. These measurements were taken again 15 months and 30 months later and were compared with children in a control group.

At the first follow-up at 15 months, the mean body mass index (BMI) score was not significantly lower for the intervention group compared with the control group. At 30 months, the mean difference was smaller and remained non-significant. The results suggest that schools alone may not be effective in preventing childhood obesity.

Source: Effectiveness of a childhood obesity prevention programme delivered through schools, targeting 6 and 7 year olds: cluster randomised controlled trial (WAVES study) (February 2018), BMJ 2018; 360:k211

The long-term impact of effective teaching

Peter Tymms and colleagues at Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring conducted a study of 40,000 children in England to examine what impact effective teaching in the first year of school has on achievement at the end of compulsory teaching at age 16.

Children’s early reading and maths development were measured at the start of school, at age four, using the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) assessments. They were assessed again at the end of their first school year and at ages 7, 11 and 16. By assessing children at the beginning and end of their first year, the researchers were able to identify effective classes – defined defined as a class where children made much larger than average gains from ages 4 to 5, controlling for pretests and deprivation.

The study, published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, found  that children who were taught well in their first year of school went on to achieve better GCSE results in English and maths at age 16 (effect size = +0.2). Long-term benefits in achievement were also reported for those children who were in effective classes in Key Stages 1 and 2, however, these were not as large as those seen in the first year of school.

The study concludes that the first year of school presents an important opportunity to have a positive impact on children’s long-term academic outcomes.

Source: The long-term impact of effective teaching (December 2017), School Effectiveness and School Improvement DOI: 10.1080/09243453.2017.1404478

The evidence on achievement gaps over time: Contained but not closing

Research has shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is the highest predictor of children’s academic achievement. Moreover, the achievement gap between low- and high-SES pupils begins early in their schooling. How effective have initiatives been at narrowing the achievement gap? Emma Garcia at the Education Policy Institute in the US and Elaine Weiss at the Broader Bolder Approach to Education examined two cohorts of kindergartners (Year 1), those who started in 1998 and those who started in 2010. They were looking at the relationship between socio-economic status and kindergartners’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills at the start of their school years to see if the achievement gap had narrowed in this twelve-year span.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics – Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies of the Kindergarten Classes of 1998-99 and 2010-11, Garcia and Weiss found that the achievement gap did not change between 1998 to 2010 among pupils living in the US’s highest and lowest economic strata, a difference of 1.17 standard deviations in reading and 1.25 standard deviations in maths, despite parents’ increased involvement in educating their children across all SES groups and the implementation of programmes designed to narrow these gaps. Interestingly, they did find that the percentage of children living in poverty grew during that time, yet the achievement gap did not grow, nor did it narrow. They found that greater parental involvement and children’s pre-school attendance contained the gap, but did not do enough to eliminate the overall effects of poverty on pupil achievement.

The researchers then reviewed twelve programmes designed to narrow the achievement gap. The most effective programmes addressed not only academics, but ensured the children were getting proper meals and healthcare and provided other supports for children and their families.

Source: Education inequalities at the school starting gate: Gaps, trends, and strategies to address them (September 2017), Education Policy Institute

What difference does it make?

We regularly quote effect sizes in Best Evidence in Brief as a measure of the impact of an intervention or approach. But what is the impact of a normal school year on children, and how much of that impact is due to the school? A study by Hans Lutyen and colleagues, published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, attempts to find out.

The study analysed 3,500 pupils from 20 mostly independent (private) English primary schools on four different learning outcomes. These measures, part of the Interactive Computer Adaptive System (InCAS), were reading, general maths, mental arithmetic and developed ability, the last of which measures items such as vocabulary and non-verbal pattern recognition.

Children were measured on these outcomes from Years 1 to 6. Using a regression-discontinuity approach that exploited the discontinuity between the youngest pupils in one year and the oldest pupils in the year below, the researchers were able to identify the overall progress of the children, and the extent to which this was a result of the impact of the school.

The results showed a declining impact of a school year as children got older. The effect size of Year 1 ranged from +1.18 for mental arithmetic to +0.8 for general maths. By Year 6, effect sizes varied from +0.88 for general maths to +0.49 for reading and developed ability.

The effect of schooling itself accounted for an average of between 23.5% and 43.4% of this impact across the four measures. Put another way, the effect size of schooling in Year 1 ranged from +0.55 for reading to +0.31 for developed ability. By Year 6, effect sizes had fallen to between +0.27 for general maths and +0.08 for reading and developed ability.

The researchers suggest that, when setting benchmarks for educational interventions, it is not only important to consider the phase of the educational career, but also the specific measure.

Source: The contribution of schooling to learning gains of pupils in Years 1 to 6 (February 2017), School Effectiveness and School Improvement

Children with reading difficulties may have undiagnosed hearing problems

A report published by the Nuffield Foundation, which compared a group of children with dyslexia to children with a history of repeated ear infections (otitis media with effusion, OME) to see if there were any similarities in their phonological and literacy difficulties, has found that their difficulties may be due in part to undiagnosed hearing problems.

Julia Carroll and Helen Breadmore compared a group of 36 children with dyslexia to 29 children with OME, and also to control groups of typically developing children of the same age and groups of younger children at the same reading level. This made a total sample size of 195 children, ages 8 to 10, from 20 schools in the UK. All of the children completed a series of tests to establish their reading and writing skills and also their phonological skills (ability to manipulate speech sounds) and morphological skills (knowledge of grammatical word structure). Eighteen months later, the children’s reading, spelling and phonological awareness was re-tested, and a hearing screening conducted.

The results showed that the children with dyslexia had different patterns of literacy difficulties than children with OME, although there were some overlaps. The children with dyslexia showed difficulties with both phonological and morphological skills, whereas children with OME had difficulties only on phonological tasks. Both dyslexic children and children with OME had lower levels of reading than the age-matched control children.

The results from the hearing screening eighteen months later found that 9 of the 36 children with dyslexia had mild or moderate hearing impairments, of which their parents and teachers were unaware. The researchers suggest, therefore, that children with reading difficulties should be screened for hearing problems so that they are able to receive more structured support that could help them improve their literacy skills.

Source: Morphological processing in children with phonological difficulties (October 2017), Coventry University and University of Warwick Briefing Paper for The Nuffield Foundation

Open Court Reading receives judgement in multi-year trial

A multi-year scale-up study has examined the effectiveness of Open Court Reading (OCR), a phonics-based curriculum for grades K-6 (Reception to Year 7).

The study, by Michael Vaden-Kiernar and colleagues, and published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, was a school-level, cluster randomised trial, involving around 4,500 pupils and 1,000 teachers in 49 elementary schools across the US.

The OCR curriculum includes pupil materials, teacher manuals, diagnostic and assessment tools and test preparation practice guides. In all grades (K-5), the instructional format is a three-part lesson with specific instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, vocabulary and comprehension skills and writing skills. The programme includes one- or two-day summer workshops at the start of each school year to train teachers on programme implementation, and ongoing support by OCR reading consultants.

An implementation study showed adequate to high levels of fidelity to the programme. However, there were no statistically significant effects on reading performance in Year 1, and a small negative effect (effect size = -0.09) in Year 2. Relative to the “business-as-usual” controls, no positive overall impacts of OCR and mixed impacts for pupil subgroups were found.

Source: Findings from a multiyear scale-Up effectiveness trial of Open Court Reading (June 2017), Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness