You’ve probably heard about “evidence-based” or “research-based” instructional programs at school. These programs are based on research that shows that they are actually effective. A behavior program that is evidence-based has been shown to have a positive effect on student behavior at school. A reading intervention that is evidence-based has data to prove that the intervention actually increases reading skills.
Evidence-based practices are now required by most federal programs and grants. IDEA (federal special education law), for example, specifies that evidence-based practices must be used in schools to improve learning outcomes for all students.There are three parts to implementing evidence-based practices. First, the school staff has to select an instructional program that is based on research. (It’s important to remember that a program is not evidence-based if the only positive evidence has been collected by the program itself! This is often the case.) Next, the staff must be trained to correctly and effectively implement the practice. And lastly, the staff must have regular “fidelity checks” to make sure that the practice continues to be correctly implemented, or implemented with “integrity”. Practices that are not implemented with integrity won’t get the expected outcomes! This is the thorniest problem with evidence-based practices in schools.
For example, let’s say that Willow Elementary School decides to use SRA Corrective Reading as a reading intervention for students who are below grade level. Several research studies indicate that SRA Corrective Reading increases student reading ability. The school purchases the instructional materials and trains the teachers. But after a while, one of the teachers decides that she can’t spend 45 minutes on a lesson every day, so she starts to shorten them. Another teacher dislikes the scripted lessons that are part of SRA, so she starts to do it her own way. The principal decides that she doesn’t have the personnel to run small SRA groups, so she doubles the recommended group size. Do you think that the positive research findings for SRA Corrective Reading apply to this school? No – they don’t! The program was not implemented with integrity.
Another huge problem is that many of our favorite instructional practices and programs are NOT evidence-based. Because these practices are familiar and sound good to adults, they have strong support in the schools and in the community despite the lack of positive outcome data. Here are just a few examples:
Once such program is DARE – Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Years of research have indicated that DARE makes no long-term significant difference in the use of illegal drugs by students. Taking DARE classes in fifth or sixth grade doesn’t actually reduce the incidence of drug abuse. And yet schools across America continue to spend precious instructional time on a program with no proven positive effect.
Another common practice in elementary schools is assigning untrained community volunteers to read with children who have skills below grade level. In the absence of training in research-based reading interventions, such volunteer reading programs are not an effective use of children’s instructional time.
Another reading intervention with a long history is DEAR – Drop Everything and Read. In this program, everyone in the school sits down and engages in sustained silent reading for 20 or 30 minutes every day. The premise is that reading practice improves reading skills, but research has shown that sustained silent reading does not benefit children unless they are already fluent readers. It is actually a waste of time for children with deficits in reading skills!
Many parents and educators firmly believe in learning styles, and in the idea that matching instruction to learning style will result in higher rates of learning. Unfortunately, at least 25 years of research on learning styles does not indicate that matching instruction to learning style has a significant positive effect on learning or attention.
So what can parents do? Here are some ideas:
Attend parent meetings at school and read the information that is sent home. Ask questions about the reading, math, and writing programs that are used in your child’s school. Look them up! There are several websites that evaluate educational programs (e.g. What Works Clearinghouse, Promising Practices Network).
Evaluate school programs and instructional practices according to their outcomes. Don’t base your opinions on what sounds good, or what teachers did when you were in school. Ask if the programs work! Support the programs that are evidence-based.
Know the difference between educational decisions and political decisions. For example, requiring third graders who do not pass the statewide test to repeat third grade is a political decision, not an educational one. Grade retention as an educational intervention is not supported by research or common sense. Support decisions that are based on sound educational research and that are a wise use of taxpayer dollars.