What works for reducing risky behaviour?

This report from the RAND Corporation examines whether being assigned to attend a high-performing public charter school in the US reduces the rates of risky health behaviour among deprived ethnic minority teenagers, and whether this is due to better academic performance, peer influence, or other factors. Risky behaviour included alcohol use, drug use, and unprotected sex, while very risky health behaviour included binge drinking, substance abuse at school, and gang participation. The researchers surveyed 521 pupils aged 14 to 18 who were offered admission into a high-performing public charter school through a random lottery (intervention group) and 409 pupils who were not offered admission (control group). The researchers also obtained the pupils’ state standardised test scores.

Results of the study showed that being assigned to attend a high-performing school led to improved maths and English standard test scores, greater school retention, and lower rates of engaging in very risky behaviour, but no difference in risky behaviour. The authors list several factors that may have contributed to these improvements. For example, the school environment may play a role by reducing exposure to “risky” peers but also by improving persistence, resilience, and other non-cognitive skills, and simply being in a demanding school may leave less time and opportunity to engage in very risky behaviour.

Source: Successful Schools and Risky Behaviors Among Low-Income Adolescents (2014), Pediatrics 134(2).

Do positive impacts at Reception age last?

In the US, compulsory schooling usually starts a year later than in the UK, with the first year – kindergarten – equivalent to Year 1. Pre-kindergarten programmes in the US are run privately or through federally funded initiatives typically aimed at deprived children, such as Head Start.
Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (TN-VPK) is an optional pre-kindergarten programme for four-year‐old children. First priority is given to children who are identified as at-risk (ie, eligible for free or reduced price lunch, with disabilities, or with English as an Additional Language).

In 2013, the Peabody Research Institute published the results of a randomised controlled trial in which children applying to the programme were admitted on a random basis. The outcome measures were: emergent literacy, language, and maths; and measures of pupils’ performance or status other than academic achievement.

During the pre‐kindergarten school year, the children who participated in TN‐VPK gained significantly more on all of the direct assessments of academic skills than the children who did not attend. Positive effects were also found on kindergarten teachers’ ratings of children’s preparedness for kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, on their ratings of the children’s classroom work behaviour and social behaviour.

However, at follow-up at the end of kindergarten, the researchers found that the effects of TN‐VPK on achievement measures had greatly diminished, and the differences between participants and non-participants were no longer statistically significant. Similarly, at the end of first grade (UK Year 2), there were no statistically significant differences between TN‐VPK participants and non-participants on these measures (with one minor exception).

Sources: Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program: End of Pre‐K Results from the Randomized Control Design (2013), Peabody Research Institute. Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program: Kindergarten and First Grade Follow‐Up Results from the Randomized Control Design (2013), Peabody Research Institute.

Are US school districts spending wisely?

The Center for American Progress has released a new report that examines the productivity of US school districts, and the conclusion is that productivity could be improved.

The authors used the results of 2010-11 state reading and maths assessments in elementary, middle, and high schools. They also used three productivity ratings that looked at the academic achievement of districts for each dollar spent, taking into account factors such as cost-of-living differences and concentrations of pupils with English as an Additional Language or with special educational needs.

The report argues that low educational productivity remains a pressing issue, with billions of dollars lost in low-capacity districts. Problems include inconsistent spending priorities (eg, some districts in Texas spend more than 10% of their unadjusted per-pupil operating expenditures on athletics); only a few states taking a weighted approach and distributing money to schools based on pupil need; funding disparity between different school districts within states; and inconsistent budget practices between different states.

The authors conclude that school productivity has not become part of the reform conversation, despite education leaders facing increasingly challenging budget choices. They recommend that:

  • States should build capacity for productivity gains through targeted grants, assistance teams, and performance metrics;
  • Education leaders should improve accounting procedures to make them more transparent and actionable, and create a multi-state initiative that will focus on building more robust education budgets;
  • Educators should come together to improve the quality of fiscal data across states; and
  • States and districts should encourage smarter, fairer approaches to school funding, such as pupil-based funding policies.

Source: Return on Educational Investment: 2014. A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity (2014) Center of American Progress.

Reading partners

A new policy brief from MDRC summarises the early results of an evaluation of the Reading Partners one-to-one volunteer reading programme, and finds positive impacts.

The programme serves more than 7,000 struggling readers in primary schools in deprived areas of several US states. Tutors do not need to have any experience, but are given training and ongoing support. Reading Partners received $7 million in investments and grants to expand to more schools throughout the US, and for an evaluation of the effectiveness of the programme.

This evaluation took place during the 2012-2013 school year in 19 schools in three states, and involved 1,265 pupils. Positive impacts were found on three different assessments of reading proficiency which measured reading comprehension, fluency, and the ability to read sight-words efficiently. The authors say that these encouraging results demonstrate that Reading Partners, when delivered on a large scale and implemented with fidelity, can be an effective tool for improving reading proficiency.

Source: Reading Partners: The Implementation and Effectiveness of a One-on-One Tutoring Program Delivered by Community Volunteers (2014), MDRC.

Good schools make a difference

A new article, published online in Urban Education, looks at the impact of family, school, and neighbourhood contextual characteristics on the outcomes of children growing up in poverty. Using data on 424 children from seven schools in deprived areas of Chicago, the authors examined four school performance outcomes including children’s maths and reading levels, grades repeated, and behavioural problems. They conclude that the study validates the impact of poverty and other adversities on a child’s school achievement and behaviours.

They found negative associations at the family level; for example, household size and household adversity were significantly associated with the increased probability of repeating a grade, and children not living with their fathers were more likely to repeat a grade or have behavioural problems. There were also negative associations at a community level; for example, low neighbourhood education levels were negatively associated with children’s maths and reading scores.

However, children enrolled in high-performing schools had higher reading scores and higher maths scores compared with those from mid/low-performing schools. The authors suggest that interventions aiming to improve the quality of schools may mediate the negative effects of individual and neighbourhood disadvantages on children’s school performance.

Source: School and Behavioral Outcomes Among Inner City Children: Five-Year Follow-Up (2013), Urban Education.

Encouraging findings for Success for All

A recently published report presents the first-year findings of a three-year longitudinal evaluation of Success for All (SFA), a whole-school literacy approach. As part of a US i3 scale-up grant, third-party evaluator MDRC randomly assigned 37 elementary schools in underprivileged areas across the US to SFA (n=19) or control (n=18) conditions. The study will follow children between the ages of 5 and 8.

First-year findings indicated significantly positive effects of SFA on the Woodcock Word Attack (phonics) scale, but no differences on Woodcock Letter-Word Identification. These findings are in line with prior longitudinal studies, which have found positive effects on Word Attack in the earliest school years, followed by Letter-Word Identification, and then Passage Comprehension by Year 3 and beyond.

Achievement effects were similar for all types of pupils, but not all subgroups had significant differences when they were analysed separately.

Later reports will focus on reading gains over time and on observation and treatment fidelity rating data.

Source: The Success for All Model of School Reform: Early Findings from the Investing in Innovation (i3) Scale-Up (2013), MDRC.