Examining research on the Big Lift preschool initiative

Celia Gomez and colleagues from the RAND Corporation have released a new research brief that examines Big Lift, a preschool to third-grade initiative designed to boost literacy skills and ensure that children are reading proficiently by third grade (Year 4). The initiative has been implemented in seven US school districts in San Mateo County, California, that have below-average third-grade reading levels. According to the brief, Big Lift seeks to improve third-grade reading through a set of four co-ordinated and integrated “pillars”: High-Quality Preschool, Summer Learning, School Attendance and Family Engagement.

The researchers have examined outcomes for two cohorts of pupils: Cohort 1 includes pupils in four districts who receive Big Lift services, and Cohort 2 an additional three districts. Data sources include early childhood cognitive assessments, kindergarten (Year 1) and first-grade (Year 2) entry forms completed by parents, and the San Mateo County Office of Education’s countywide data system.

The current research brief is part of a multiphase evaluation of Big Lift, and reports on findings after two years of implementation. Key findings are as follows:

  • Big Lift preschool children in the 2017–2018 kindergarten class were better prepared for kindergarten than demographically similar peers who did not attend preschool — but they were less prepared than similar peers who attended non–Big Lift preschool programmes.
  • Children who attended two years of Big Lift preschool were more kindergarten-ready than similar peers who attended only one year.
  • In the 2016–2017 kindergarten class, Big Lift preschool children had reading levels at the end of kindergarten and the start of first grade that were on par with similar peers who attended other preschool programmes and higher than similar peers who attended no preschool at all.

Source: The Big Lift preschool, two years in: What have we learned so far? (2018), RAND Corporation Research Briefs RB-10047-SVCF

Are immigrant children more likely to pursue STEM careers?

Findings from a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest that immigrant children study more maths and science in high school and college, which means they are more likely to pursue STEM careers.

Marcus Rangel and Ying Shi looked at the trajectories of more than 286,000 children born outside the US, and who moved to the US before age 16, using nationally representative datasets including the 2010-2016 waves of the American Community Survey, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and the National Survey of College Graduates.

They found that among US-born children, about 20% of college students major in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). However, among those born outside the US – particularly those who moved to the US after age 10, and don’t come from English-speaking or northern-European countries where the native language is linguistically close to English – this number is much higher, with around 36% majoring in STEM subjects.

The authors suggest that older children who immigrate to the US from a country where the native language is very dissimilar to English may choose subjects that rely less on language skills and build more on skills they are relatively more comfortable with, such as maths or science. The study found that children arriving after age 10 earn approximately 20% more credits in maths-intensive courses than they do in English-intensive courses. This focus then continues throughout college, which in turn leads to pursuing a career in a STEM field.

Source: Early patterns of skill acquisition and immigrants’ specialization in STEM careers (January 2019), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, volume 116, no. 2

Do young children favour boys over girls?

A new study published in American Psychologist looks at evidence of bias against women and girls for jobs or activities requiring intellectual ability.

Andrei Cimpian conducted a series of three experiments to test for evidence of gender bias and its developmental roots. In the two initial experiments, more than 1,150 participants (mean age 35 years) were asked to refer individuals for a job. The results showed that participants were less likely to refer a woman when the job description mentioned intellectual ability (43.5% female referrals) than when it did not (50.8%).

In the third experiment, the researchers looked at whether young children favour boys over girls for intellectually challenging activities. Children ages five to seven (n= 192) were recruited from a small mid-western city in the US, and taught how to play a team game. Half of the children were told that the game was for “really, really smart” children, the other half were not. Children were then asked to select three teammates from among six children (three boys and three girls) they did not know.

Initially, the children selected teammates of the same gender as themselves (so, girls chose the other girls, and boys chose the other boys), but by the third selection round they became less likely to select girls as teammates for the “smart” game (37.6% girls selected) than for the control game (53.4%). Girls were less likely to select other girls as teammates across selection rounds, particularly for the “smart” game.

Source: Evidence of bias against girls and women in contexts that emphasize intellectual ability (December 2018), American Psychologist 73(9)

Examining restorative practices in schools

A new research brief by Catherine Augustine and colleagues at the RAND Corporation examines findings from an evaluation of restorative practices as implemented in schools in Pennsylvania, USA. Restorative practices are described as inclusive and non-punitive ways to respond to conflict and build community, and these practices were implemented through the SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change programme. Some key elements of the programme include:

  • Affective statements: Personal expressions of feeling in response to specific positive or negative behaviours of others.
  • Small impromptu conferences: Questioning exercises that quickly resolve lower-level incidents involving two or more people.
  • Fair process: A set of transparent practices designed to create open lines of communication, assure people that their feelings and ideas have been taken into account, and foster a healthy community as a means of treating people respectfully throughout a decision-making process so that they perceive that process to be fair, regardless of the outcome.

The research team conducted a randomised controlled trial of restorative practices in 44 schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, between June 2015 and June 2017. Data included findings from observations, surveys, and interviews, and administrative.

Key findings of the study were as follows:

  • Restorative practices were successful in reducing pupil suspensions.
  • Restorative practices reduced suspension rates of elementary grade (primary school) pupils, African American pupils, pupils from low-income families, and female pupils more than for pupils not in these groups.
  • Restorative practices did not improve academic outcomes, nor did they reduce suspensions for middle school pupils or suspensions for violent offences.

Overall, the research team concludes that restorative practices are promising, particularly for elementary schools seeking to reduce suspension rates.

Source: Restorative practices help reduce student suspensions. (December 2018), RAND Corporation RB-10051-DOJ

Do pupils benefit from longer school days?

A study published in Economics of Education Review looks at the evidence from the extended school day (ESD) programme in Florida to determine whether pupils benefit from longer school days.

In 2012, Florida introduced the ESD programme, increasing the length of the school day by an hour in the lowest-performing elementary (primary) schools in order to provide additional reading lessons. The lessons had to be based on research, adapted for pupil ability, and include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Schools were selected using school-level reading accountability measures. For this study, David Figlio and colleagues looked at reading scores for all pupils in Florida between grades 3 and 10 (Years 4 and 11) using school administrative data from 2005–06 and 2012–13, and employed a regression discontinuity design to estimate the effect of lengthening the school day, looking at the different performance of schools either side of the cut-off point.

Results indicated that the additional one hour of reading lessons had a positive effect on pupils’ reading achievement. ESD schools showed an improvement of +0.05 standard deviations on reading test scores in the first year. The annual cost of the ESD programme was $300,000-$400,000 per school, or $800 per pupil.

Source: Do students benefit from longer school days? Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida’s additional hour of literacy instruction (December 2018), Economics of Education Review, Volume 67

Planning ahead for summer

Heather L Schwartz and colleagues from the RAND Corporation have released a final report on a six-year study of the National Summer Learning Project, an initiative from The Wallace Foundation that was implemented in 2011 in five urban school districts in the US. The summer programmes in these districts were district-led, voluntary summer learning programmes that featured both academic teaching and enrichment opportunities to improve outcomes for low-income pupils.

The overall study combined a randomised controlled trial with correlational analysis and implementation research to examine whether voluntary, district-run summer learning programmes can improve academic, behavioural, and social and emotional outcomes for low-income, urban children in both the short and long terms. The study followed approximately 5,600 pupils from third to seventh grade (Years 4 to 8). Data included surveys, observations and test data.

Findings showed that pupils who received a minimum of 25 hours of mathematics teaching in a summer performed better on the subsequent state maths test, and those receiving 34 hours of English lessons performed better on the subsequent state English language assessment.

These outcomes need to be viewed with caution, however, as pupils who actually attended summer school, as opposed to those who signed up but did not attend, are likely to be more highly motivated and better achieving, introducing possible bias.

Based on their research, the authors offer several recommendations for planning for summer learning, including:

  • Commit in the autumn to a summer programme, and start active planning by January with a programme director who has at least half of his or her time devoted to the job.
  • Prior to the start of the summer programme, professional development for summer teachers should include specific guidance on use of the summer curricula, minimising loss of teaching time, and on checking for pupil understanding.
  • Operate the programme for five to six weeks with three to four hours of academic lessons per day.

A more detailed and comprehensive list of recommendations can be found in the report.

Source: Getting to work on summer learning. Recommended practices for success, 2nd edition (2018), RAND Corporation