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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: