Boosting the life chances of non-white boys

A new report from MDRC looks at what is known about the economic and social disadvantage of non-white young men in the US and the evidence behind initiatives that may help to tackle this problem.

The paper reviews the results from a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and highlights promising interventions. Interventions are divided into two broad categories: (a) Proactive Approaches: preventive interventions aimed at young men who are still connected to positive systems (like schools or community colleges) that seek to enhance their success in moving through those systems and on to productive careers, and (b) Reconnection Approaches: interventions targeting those who have disconnected from positive systems. The report also lists ongoing research with results expected soon.

The authors note that well-targeted and well-implemented programmes can make a difference, but to make a lasting difference, successful interventions must be taken to scale — that is, replicated and expanded successfully in new places and settings.

As well as identifying proven and promising programmes, the authors outline four additional (evidence-based) approaches that could have wider implications for supporting young people from underperforming groups. These are:

  • Encouraging young people to apply for the best higher education establishment they are capable of attending, not “undermatching”;
  • Specialised support within higher education for students from underperforming groups;
  • Embedding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy within employment schemes for those within the justice system; and
  • New approaches to summer jobs and internships to help give work experience to help build work-readiness, a CV, and gain references.

Source: Boosting the Life Chances of Young Men of Color: Evidence from Promising Programs (2014), MDRC

My Baby & Me programme shows promise

A new article published in Developmental Psychology examined the efficacy of a parenting intervention called My Baby & Me. The intervention runs from the third trimester of pregnancy until children are 2½, and focuses on changing specific aspects of mothers’ responsive behaviours with their children. It is delivered through 55 personal coaching sessions, 22 of which are based on the Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) curriculum.

A total of 361 high-risk mothers (with low income and educational achievement) from four states were enrolled in the study. Half were randomly assigned to the full 55 session high-intensity (HI) coaching programme (in the mother’s home or a place of her choice), and half to a low-intensity (LI) condition that included monthly phone calls from a coach, printed information, and community resource referrals. Videotaped observations of mother–child play were coded at five time points for a variety of maternal and child behaviours and skills.

The study found that, compared to mothers in the LI group, mothers in the HI group showed higher levels of contingent responsiveness, higher-quality verbal stimulation, and more verbal scaffolding by 30 months, with higher levels of warmth and greater decreases in physical intrusiveness and negativity when their children were 24 months. By 30 months, children in the HI group showed more rapid increases and higher levels of engagement with the environment, expressive language skills, and social engagement, as well as more complex toy play and fewer behaviour problems than those in the LI group.

The authors conclude that the positive outcomes for the programme can be explained by a strong theoretical framework, a consistent focus on maternal responsiveness, high dosage, and trusting relationships with coaches beginning before the child was born. However, they also note that it can be very challenging to keep participants engaged in such a lengthy intervention.

Source: “My Baby & Me”: Effects of an Early, Comprehensive Parenting Intervention on At-risk Mothers and Their Children (2014), Developmental Psychology, 50(5).

Spectacular results using self-regulation to improve writing

A new study has used memorable visits and self-regulation to improve the writing of children in Year 6 and 7.

The Education Endowment Foundation project involved 23 primary schools and their Year 6 teachers in West Yorkshire. 11 schools were randomly allocated to receive training, from an external consultant, in the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) approach. Twelve schools were allocated to the comparison. SRSD provides a clear structure to help pupils plan, monitor, and evaluate their writing. It aims to encourage pupils to take ownership of their work. Memorable experiences, such as trips to local landmarks or visits from World War II veterans, were used as a focus for writing lessons.

The project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes. The overall effect size for writing, comparing the progress of pupils in the project to similar pupils who did not participate, was +0.74. This was statistically significant, and equivalent to approximately nine months’ additional progress. The approach was even more effective for pupils eligible for free school meals, although this was not statistically significant.

Source: Improving Writing Quality Evaluation Report and Executive Summary (2014), Education Endowment Foundation.

Effective group work boosts critical thinking

A new article in the International Journal of Educational Research explores the use of a number of effective group work strategies, informed by the UK-based SPRinG project, and whether these strategies can facilitate students’ learning of critical thinking. The author concludes that they can.

The intervention was trialled with more than 200 children age 11-12 in General Studies lessons in two Hong Kong schools, both with little experience of conducting group work in classrooms. In each school, three classes were randomly chosen from five classes. One (class A) acted as a control group, using a mainly “whole-class teaching approach” (WCTA, N = 69), and classes B and C constituted the experimental group, with one adopting “group work with no specific strategies” (GWNS, N = 68), and the other “group work with effective strategies” (GWES, N = 68).

The strategies developed in the SPRinG project (particularly those for primary school) were employed in the GWES subgroups. This included students attending workshops in which they were taught how to ask questions, take turns, propose ideas, and give explanations; teachers being consistently reminded to provide their classes with regular briefing and debriefing; teachers being encouraged to provide hints and direction but not steer or dominate discussions; and, physically, the tables in the GWES condition were movable, allowing students to form groups relatively quickly and quietly. Group work activities included peer critiquing, collaborative graffiti, and group discussions. Ten interventional sessions took place over approximately five months.

Data collection comprised pre- and post-test scores obtained from the California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory and the Test of Critical Thinking Skills for Primary and Secondary School Students, the graffiti sheets submitted by the group work children in the intervention, and in-depth interviews with the four experimental teachers. The author concluded that the intervention was effective, and the strategies developed in the SPRinG project made a substantial difference both to students’ group work and their critical thinking abilities.

Source: Promoting Critical Thinking Through Effective Group Work: A Teaching Intervention for Hong Kong Primary School Students (2014), International Journal of Educational Research, 66.

Preschool music hits a wrong note

A new study assesses the effects of early music education on children’s cognitive development. The researchers conducted two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) with preschool children. The experiments investigated the cognitive effects of a six-week series of 45-minute music classes, as compared to a similar but non-musical form of arts lesson (visual arts, Experiment 1) or to a no-treatment control (Experiment 2).

After the six weeks the children were assessed in four cognitive areas in which older arts-trained pupils have been reported to excel: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. The authors initially found that children from the music class showed greater spatial-navigational ability than the children from the visual arts class, while children from the visual arts class showed greater visual form analysis ability than children from the music class (Experiment 1). However, a partial replication attempt comparing music training to a no-treatment control failed to confirm these findings (Experiment 2).

The combined results of the two experiments were negative: overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment. The authors say that their findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs, and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music lessons.

Source: Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment (2013), PLoS ONE, December 2013.

Extended maternity leave does not improve test scores

A new working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research investigates whether prolonged paid and protected maternity leave has an effect on children’s cognitive development. The authors used data from Austria, where a change in policy in 1990 extended maternity leave entitlement from one year to two years. Most women – around 80% – took the full entitlement. The authors looked at the effect this change had on test scores at age 15, using standardised assessments in mathematics, reading, and scientific literacy from the international PISA study.

The paper found no significant overall impact of the extended parental leave mandate on standardised test scores at age 15. However, subgroup analyses by maternal education and child gender points to significant positive effects for children of highly educated mothers, especially for boys. In contrast, schooling outcomes of children from less-well-educated mothers seem to have been harmed (boys have lower test scores and girls have a higher likelihood of being in a lower grade). The authors note that it is an open question as to how much these potential negative effects could be mitigated or reversed through a high-quality formal day care system.

Source: Parental Leave and Children’s Schooling Outcomes: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from a Large Parental Leave Reform (2013), National Bureau of Economic Research.