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Back to the Basics, Indeed: A Brief Overview of Education Research

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At a recent event in New York City, Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at New York University, bemoaned the political maneuvering and bickering over details that has come to dominate education policy discussions. In all the arguing over whether to open more charter schools or publicize teacher test scores, he correctly noted that we often seem to ignore what is best for students. What would clearly serve the country's children better is putting our limited education dollars into what the evidence says works.

There is more than enough heated rhetoric about "evidence-based" initiatives. Turn down the burners, however, and the research appears quite a bit clearer. Here's a quick overview:

Early childhood education: Both randomly controlled trials of "model" early childhood programs and rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental studies of larger, state-supported pre-kindergarten programs render this area of education policy among the most solidly supported. High-quality programs have been demonstrated to improve kindergarten readiness, reduce rates of grade retention and special education placement, increase test scores and high school graduation rates, and to have long-lasting impacts such as higher rates of college attendance and employment and lower rates of teen pregnancy and crime. Societal returns have been estimated at between $4-16 per $1 invested.

Health care: There is also abundant evidence that access to health care and good nutrition play critical roles in ensuring that children attend school regularly and are attentive and ready to learn in class. In very early years, support provided by the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (known as WIC) has been found to promote healthy birth weight and decrease food insecurity, and benefits provided by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are the primary defense against food insecurity among low-income kids of all ages. School-based health clinics' provision of preventive and basic remedial health care -- including mental health counseling, asthma prevention and monitoring, dental care, and vaccinations -- has been found effective at keeping students in class and improving their in-school performance.

Afterschool and summer programs: Here, too, the evidence is quite clear: While low-income students learn at about the same rate as their higher-income peers from September to June, summer learning loss opens substantial income-based gaps from June to September. High-quality afterschool and summer programs have been found to narrow that gap and promote a range of competencies that make it more likely that at-risk students will stay in school, earn good grades, and graduate.

Class size: The research here isn't nearly as clear as in the areas above, but neither is it inconclusive. Teacher responses to the most recent MetLife survey show that increasing class sizes due to budget cuts are a factor in growing teacher dissatisfaction with their jobs. While some have questioned whether the impressive results from Tennessee's STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) program apply more broadly, the Department of Education finds smaller class sizes to be one of just a few education reforms backed by conclusive evidence.

Teacher merit pay: For all the attention this policy has been receiving, there is little if any evidence that merit pay is an effective means of either retaining good teachers or improving average teachers' performance. Indeed, Raj Chetty and his colleagues concede as much in their recent article on the estimated benefits of high "value-added" teachers. Author Daniel Pink devotes a whole chapter in his best-seller Drive to explaining why policymakers are barking up the wrong tree in promoting this idea.

Charter schools: Again, the evidence is pretty mixed, and depends greatly on the charter school, rather than the overall model. A Stanford University 16-state meta-analysis of charter school data finds that a minority of charter schools serve at-risk students better than their public school counterparts, the majority more or less the same, and a substantial minority worse, with quality a major concern.
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Getting back to Dr. Noguera's frustration: You would never know, from either media coverage or public debate, or from the Department of Education's priorities as represented in federal education policies, that this is what the research landscape looks like. Merit pay for teachers and charter schools are all the rage. Early childhood education and health care get little more than lip service, summer enrichment has devolved into "extended learning time," and keeping class sizes at least reasonable (if not small for the most at-risk students) is mocked as meaningless.

Paul Peterson calls these rigorously researched initiatives "narrow, niggling, naïve, and negligible." As director of the Coalition for Community Schools Marty Blank points out, however, "the research and common sense tell me that both [in-school and out-of school supports] ... are critical to creating the conditions for learning that all students need. Indeed, I can't imagine that any middle- or upper-class parents, who provide all of this as a matter of course, would ever stop doing so."

I don't think any of us really believes that quality early childhood education, good health and nutrition, and afterschool and summer enrichment don't matter much. Let's stop pretending otherwise and take the Broader Bolder Approach to Education that is right for all of our kids.

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