year in review

What worked (and didn’t) this year: 10 lessons from education research to take into 2019

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

It’s hard to keep up with education research. So with the end of the year approaching, we’re here to help.

We’ve synthesized what we learned from research in 2018, focusing on which policies seemed to work and which didn’t. We’re using “what worked” as a shorthand for policies that improved test scores or affected metrics like suspensions, attendance, and high school graduation rates.

(A few important caveats apply: Sometimes, policies affect some measures but not others. And just because a policy works one place doesn’t mean it will succeed elsewhere.)

With that out of the way, here are 10 takeaways from a year of education research.

What worked: Addressing the effects of child poverty

One way to help students in poverty do better in school has nothing to do with schools themselves. That’s the conclusion of a bevy of studies we wrote about this year: improving the conditions of poor children, by just making their families less poor, translates to better outcomes.

Cash benefits, the earned income tax credit, food stamps, and health insurance programs are among the anti-poverty programs connected to increases in student learning or the number of years students persist in school. The benefits were similar to those seen from effective school improvement efforts.

We also looked more closely at some specific programs. For instance, the timing of food stamps affects student learning, with students scoring better on exams a few weeks after the benefits are provided. A program to address lead poisoning through extra health services led to dramatic reductions in suspensions, absences, and crime rates in schools. Children’s health insurance programs caused increases to how long kids stay in school. Universal free lunch programs can reduce suspensions and improve kids’ health.

What worked: Giving students familiar peers and teachers

Research on schools has found that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt — it seems to spur more learning.

One paper found that students scored slightly higher on state tests when they had the same teacher in back-to-back years. Two other studies found that elementary school students scored worse when they had different teachers for core subjects, rather than just one teacher, as is more common. And another paper found that students learned less when their teacher left mid-year, perhaps because of the disruption caused by having a new teacher.

The benefits seem to extend from other students, too. Elementary school students are less likely to be absent when they have the same classmates in consecutive years, recent research has shown.

What worked: Assigning top teachers as mentors to student-teachers

Here’s a common-sense way to improve teacher preparation: ensure prospective teachers are paired with mentor teachers who are themselves effective.

A trio of recent studies were among the first to document that teachers are more effective when they first taught under the supervision of high-quality teacher. Notably, the studies found that experience level of the mentor teacher was less important. The benefits were fairly modest, but they’re encouraging for policymakers who have long struggled to find ways to improve teacher prep.

What worked: Giving struggling students extra learning time

Here’s another common-sense result that research bore out this year: struggling students benefit from extra time in school.

In particular, two recent studies in Massachusetts cities found that students benefited from a “spring break academy,” where some kids were given the chance to get intensive test prep with small classes over spring vacation. In one of the studies, students were not only more likely to be proficient on state exams, they were also less likely to be suspended over the rest of the school year. The results are in line with research on intensive small-group tutoring during the school day for students who are behind.

An important caveat, through: the spring break academies were only offered to certain students, and avoided including students with behavioral or attendance problems. That raises concerns about whether the approach works for some in part because it leaves other kids behind.

What worked: Performance pay for teachers

A handful of high-profile studies several years ago suggested that teachers simply didn’t respond to the promise of higher pay based on performance. But one major study suggested that merit pay may have merit after all.

The random-assignment study, released by the federal government, compared schools that gave teachers raises based in part on their evaluation scores to those that gave raises to all teachers. Students at the schools with performance-based pay saw slightly higher test scores as a result, and teachers were less likely to leave the school.

What worked: Air conditioning

Teachers, students, or really anyone who has been in a hot room knows the temperature makes it hard to pay attention. A study from earlier this year documented that high temperatures cause high school students to perform worse on the PSAT. The schools and classrooms that appeared unaffected? Those with air conditioning.

What (kind of) didn’t work: School vouchers

In last year’s review, we noted that the latest research suggested that private school vouchers hurt student test scores, but those effects might not last for students who use the voucher for multiple years. This year, though, a couple of studies suggested that the lower test scores caused by attending a private school with a voucher do persist.

A study in Washington, D.C. found that lower test scores in math continued for two years after a student was in the voucher program. (That study also found that the vouchers did improve parents’ perceptions of school safety.) And a revised study in Indiana showed that, contrary to an earlier version, students lost ground in math after four years in a private school.

But things become a bit more complicated when looking at other research on vouchers. A study in Milwaukee showed that voucher recipients were more likely to attend college; in D.C., there was no effect on college attendance.

In Louisiana, studies showed huge initial drops in test scores, which bounced back in some cases, for elementary and middle school students. For high school students, vouchers had no effect or even a modest positive impact on college attendance.

It that sounds like a complicated verdict, that’s because it is. If you’re curious for more, check out our updated overview of voucher research.

What didn’t work: Holding students back a grade

One approach meant to help struggling students catch up is leaving them further behind, according to research on grade retention in New York City and Louisiana. Specifically, students held back a grade in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school as a result. Evidence on retention in elementary school is more mixed, but also doesn’t point to clear benefits of the policy.

One complicating factor here is that some states also offer extra summer school for students at risk of being held back, and that may be beneficial to students.

What didn’t work: Tougher teacher evaluations

Ramped-up teacher evaluation systems came without meaningful benefits, but produced a major unintended consequence, according to two studies this year. A study of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s grants to districts and charter schools to put in place new evaluation systems showed no clear gains for students. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) A separate study found that the national push for tougher evaluations — and weaker tenure protections — deterred a substantial number of prospective teachers, perhaps due to fears of weaker job security.

Keep in mind that other evaluations of district-specific evaluation changes have pointed to much more encouraging results, suggesting that the jury is still out on evaluation reforms. Another study from this year described how the new teacher evaluations have changed the jobs of principals, both positively and negatively.

What didn’t work: Cutting school spending

Results on “the nation’s report card” — that is, the federal NAEP tests — arrived this year, and scores were basically stagnant. Some pundits saw a “lost decade” of educational progress.

One potential culprit, backed by some research, is the spending cuts schools faced in the wake of the Great Recession. One study found that states that had steeper cuts made less progress on NAEP as a result. That’s in line with other research we looked at this year on whether schools work better for students when they have more money to spend. The short answer is yes.

“By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled,” concluded one major review of the research.

Want even more of what works? Here’s last year’s version of this retrospective.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.