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Questioning 'what works'

By Dana Goldstein

This morning I heard a lecture by British education expert Geoff Whitty on the emerging similarities between school reform efforts in the Obama-era United States and the Cameron-era U.K., particularly around the concepts of school choice and accountability. Whitty was critical of policy makers and the media for selectively citing research findings in support of charter schools and — more interestingly and counter-intuitively — for being obsessed with finding “what works” in education and other social policy areas.

The “what works” framework, Whitty argued, tends to privilege attempts to create alternative administrative structures (like charter schools), when in fact, other types of interventions may be equally — if not more — effective.

I’d submit that an alternative question to ask about schools is “What is needed?” There’s a great example of such a research effort underway right now in Newark, N.J., where a grass-roots group called the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools is sending parents and community members into each city school to conduct a survey of principals. They’re looking to find out what each school actually needs — from textbooks to smaller class sizes to facility repairs, to better-qualified teachers to additional social workers or substance-abuse counselors.

The goal is to present Mayor Cory Booker with a concrete plan for how to spend the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donation that will flow into the district over the next five years — a plan that will put the focus on the needs of Newark’s neighborhood public schools and the 90 percent of Newark children whom they educate. (Many observers worry that Booker will direct the money mostly toward charter schools, given his long history of advocacy on their behalf.)

“The resources are just not there to run the [existing neighborhood] schools,” said Junius Williams, a civil rights movement veteran and education equality expert, at a community meeting in Newark on Saturday. He mentioned Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts, which have prevented four new school buildings from going up. “The planning is finished, but the governor won’t let the shovels go into the ground."

Dana Goldstein is a contributing writer to the Daily Beast and the Nation, and is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. Read more of her work at

By Dana Goldstein  | November 8, 2010; 3:55 PM ET
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it is going to be interesting to see what happens to the newark school system with a 100 million dollar windfall.
just imagining what 100 million dollars, could create for the next generations of students. it could be a shining gem.
we see what meg whitman managed to do with 140 million dollars. i hope mayor booker and his team of experts are blessed with more wisdom and great success.
if things are squandered, or managed with poor intent it doesnt matter how much money you have.

Posted by: jkaren | November 8, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

You need a survey? Shouldn't the district be keeping an ongoing list of needed repairs, shortfalls in textbooks/school supplies, and other unfunded projects? Seriously, what do the Newark administrators do all day?

Posted by: besmit02 | November 8, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I feel like we always talk about public education as if all public schools are similar. What works or what is needed for a school serving low income high crime students with a massive drop-out rate just really does not have much in common with what is needed or what works for a rural school facing state-wide budget cuts.

Posted by: Levijohn | November 8, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I've read way too many reports on school choice, returns to schooling, etc. etc. to have much faith that anything even remotely cost-effective will change outcomes very much. All I've learned is that there isn't very much evidence that anything works. Everyone has their theory, class size, dollars spent per student, charter schools, etc., and in nearly every case I can think of the data doesn't clearly show that changing any of those things has much change on outcome. Sure, some papers do, but for every one that does, you'll find another that doesn't. In aggregate, findings are pretty ambiguous.

I'd be curious to see what kind of results $100 million buys you. My cynical side says it probably won't be that much.

Posted by: Nylund154 | November 8, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

For needs, start with what parents want in private schools: qualified, motivated teachers; uo ti date textbooks and other educational resources; an orderly school environment; facilities whose features work, e.g., toilets flush, roofs keep water out, properly functioning heating and a/c systems. But doing all this will still leave a yawning gap in learning. To do better in education, we need research whose findings can be translated into the schol, home and community and are implemented there with high fidelity to the underlying science. For example, a strong finding is that adolescents get sleepy later and need more sleep. So the school day for them needs to start much later than is usually the case. When the start time has been adjusted to take the sleep needs of adolescents into account, attentiveness in class (especially the first class) increases, and most important, grade and school educational gains meaningfully increase.

NIH research (at the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development) has found several keys for teaching reading more effectively. That research should be used.

Evaluations of interventions for children and youth from disadvantaged families -- from Head Start through high school -- find with dismaying consistency meager increases in educational achievement at best, and if there are gains, they are soon lost. Is there any hope for bringing the children of disadvantaged parents into the educational mainstream? NIH research answers that question affirmatively. See the little, data rich but readily and quickly read little book, Meaningful Differences, by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. What works? Early intervention -- age 8 mos to 3 years of age. What's the intervention? In-home visitation 20 hrs/wk for verbal interactions with the individual little ones. Verbal interaction develops vocabulary, and vocabulary correlates better than .9 with verbal IQ. The results: Transformative. At 4th grade, average IQs of 100 and educational achievement at grade level.

Implementing just these three strong research findings would substantially improve educational outcomes for the better -- and the prospects of our young people and for our country.

The pity is that this (and other) research is not being implemented. We need to quit thinking and acting dumb and start thinking and acting smart -- using research as other areas of endeavor used it to enable transformative results.

There is much more that we can and should learn about education from research. So education needs a research effort commensurate with its importance. This means a National Institute on Education with the rigor and size of a major NIH institute. This is an appropriate Federal function. With benefit of an expansion of education research and its results, we can do an all out race to the top with highly meaningful -- indeed, massive transformative results.

Posted by: jimb | November 8, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

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