Saturday, January 14, 2017

Gifted students benefit from ability grouping

Schools should use both ability grouping and acceleration to help academically talented students, reports a new Northwestern University study that examined a century of research looking at the controversial subject.

Ability grouping places students of similar skills and abilities in the same classes. Acceleration, most commonly known as grade skipping, subject acceleration or early admission into kindergarten or college, gives students the chance to access opportunities earlier or progress more rapidly.
The widely debated educational techniques effectively increase academic achievement at a low cost and can benefit millions of students in U.S. school systems, according to the study, published in Review of Educational Research.

"Although acceleration is widely supported by research as an effective strategy for meeting the needs of advanced learners, it's still rarely used, and most schools do not systematically look for students who need it," said study co-author Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of the Center for Talent Development at the Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy.

The U.S. spends nearly $600 billion a year on public education, but research questions whether the resources are reaching high-performing students. A recent policy brief reported that 20 to 40 percent of elementary and middle school students perform above grade level in reading and 10 to 30 percent do so in math, according to the study.

Proponents of ability and acceleration point to benefits for children who are under-challenged in their grade-level classroom. With a more homogenous learning environment, it's easier for teachers to match their instruction to a student's needs and the students benefit from interacting with comparable academic peers.

Critics argue that dividing the students can mean the loss of leaders or role models, greater achievement gaps and lower self-esteem for struggling students.

But the research indicated that students benefited from within-class grouping, cross-grade subject grouping and gifted and talented programs, although the benefits were negligible for between class groupings.

Accelerated students performed significantly better than non-accelerated same-age peers, and comparable to non-accelerated older students, according to the study.

Others have said education should "avoid trying to teach students what they already know," the authors wrote. "Based on the nearly century's worth of research, we believe the data clearly suggest that ability grouping and acceleration are two such strategies for achieving this goal."

Though hardly the final word on such a hot-button issue, the new study helps clarify the academic effects of ability grouping and acceleration.

"The conversation needs to evolve beyond whether such interventions can ever work," they wrote. The bulk of evidence over the last century "suggests that academic acceleration and most forms of ability grouping like cross-grade subject grouping and special grouping for gifted students can greatly improve K-12 students' academic achievement."

Northwestern's Saiying Steenbergen-Hu of the Center for Talent Development was the lead author of the report, which was also co-authored by Matthew Makel of Duke University's Talent Identification Program. The authors reviewed 172 empirical studies on the efficacy of ability grouping as well as 125 studies on acceleration.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Evidence-based policy: Whish evidence?

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Knowledge Alliance focuses on the evidence-based research provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Although the report underscores the significant challenges facing state education agencies in the current policy climate, the advice provided to guide policymakers and practitioners is too thin and unsubstantiated to be of much use.

Assistant Professor Terri S. Wilson of the University of Colorado Boulder reviewed Better Evidence, Better Choices, Better Schools: State Supports for Evidence-Based School Improvement and the Every Student Succeeds Act for the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at CU Boulder’s School of Education.

The CAP report aims to provide guidance for the state and local education agencies now tasked with implementing evidence-based school improvement practices. The new ESSA provisions ask districts and schools to consider various sources of evidence, make judgments about the strength and reliability of that evidence, and use that evidence to justify their choices of interventions. The report contrasts these new standards with the scientifically based research requirements featured in previous federal legislation. It argues that the move from federal mandates to greater state and local autonomy is a positive change but also poses new challenges.

Though helpful in framing the challenges, the report’s general recommendations for implementing evidence-based reform strategies remain relatively vague, and these recommendations are grounded in neither the existing research literature nor the empirical study featured in the report. The broad idea of evidence-based policy is an easy thing to agree about, but Professor Wilson explains that the more difficult questions involve what counts as evidence and who is able (and authorized) to determine what kinds of evidence are most relevant to local contexts.

Professor Wilson concludes, therefore, that while the CAP report raises a number of important issues, it leaves these more difficult questions unexplored.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Understanding Peer Pressure in Education

Concerns about social image may negatively affect schooling behavior. This study identifies two potentially important peer cultures: one that stigmatizes effort (thus, where it is “smart to be cool”) and one that rewards ability (where it is “cool to be smart”).

A field experiment tested whether students are influenced by these concerns at all, and then which they are more influenced by.  High schools in two settings were examined: a low-income, high minority share area and a higher-income, lower minority share area.

In both settings, peer pressure reduces takeup of an SAT prep package, consistent with a greater concern for hiding effort in the lower-income school, and a greater concern with hiding low ability in the higher-income schools.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Play, cognitive skills in kindergarten predict extracurricular activities in middle school

Cognitive skills and experiences like classroom-based play in kindergarten lead to participation in extracurricular activities in 8th grade among children growing up in poverty, finds a new study led by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

The findings, published in Applied Developmental Science, look at extracurricular activities as precursors to civic engagement, the building blocks for a healthy democracy.

"This study provides first-time empirical evidence that young children's experiences and skills in kindergarten may shape their engagement in society later in life," said study author Jennifer Astuto, research assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and director of playLabNYU, which studies the role of play in children's lives.

"The developmental skill, executive function, and engagement in classroom-based play are not only important for being 'school-ready,' but also may be unique pathways to becoming 'civic ready' for children growing up in the context of poverty in America."

In civic engagement research there has been a focus on examining the gap in civic engagement among low-income communities and their higher-income counterparts. However, little research has focused on how civic engagement develops early in life, as opposed to in adolescence or adulthood, despite the fact that young children indeed are active citizens in school, home, and peer groups.

What has been studied widely in young children is executive function, which represents the intersection of cognitive and social-emotional competencies. Three core executive functions - inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility - are viewed as fundamental developmental skills for later civic engagement.

"We view executive functions as the foundation for productive engagement in society. For example, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility may allow young children to be active listeners to the social needs of others," Astuto said.

Classroom-based play provides an opportunity for children to develop executive functions, including controlling emotions, resisting impulses, and exerting self-control. Through play, children learn to become a member of a social group and follow rules, foreshadowing the skills and behaviors of a civically engaged adolescent or adult.

"When young children are engaged in play they have the opportunity to create and develop ideas - as well as a sense of community - with other children. Sharing and encouraging each other's curiosity and imagination through play can build a sense of appreciation for the value of working together toward a common goal, even when differences exist," Astuto said.

To examine the developmental origins of civic engagement in children growing up in poverty, the researchers used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K), developed by the U.S. Department of Education. A nationally representative sample of 22,782 children enrolled in kindergarten during the 1998-1999 school year participated in ECLS-K; these students were followed from kindergarten through 8th grade. This study focused on 7,675 students who were defined as living in poverty in kindergarten.

Using statistical models, the researchers looked at two factors in kindergarten - children's executive function and exposure to play in the classroom - and how they contributed to the students' participation in different extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Other civic engagement research suggests that when youth participate in school-sponsored activities, they are more likely to take part in civic behaviors later in life such as volunteering, voting, or reaching out to public officials.

The researchers found that greater executive function predicted participation in drama and music clubs, sports, and the overall number of hours spent in extracurricular activities. Engagement in classroom-based play was also a significant predictor of participation in clubs and activities in middle school after controlling for executive function. For example, how frequently children used play-based materials in kindergarten such as art supplies, theatre props, and musical instruments predicted whether they played sports during 8th grade.

The results speak to the unique role of play in early childhood classrooms today, particularly within low-income communities.

"Young children's first social blueprint is the early childhood classroom setting, which is ripe for the development of skills and exposure to experiences which build the foundation for future engagement," Astuto said. "Because of the structural disparities that lead to differences of civic engagement between the economically advantaged and those growing up in poverty, it is critical that we identify, support, and cultivate skills and experiences for children and youth which addresses this inequality."

Pivotal Response Training: no discernible effects on communication/language competencies for children and students with an autism spectrum disorder

Children and Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

Pivotal response training (PRT) is an intervention designed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This practice focuses on pivotal (core) areas affected by autism, such as communication and responding to environmental stimuli. PRT sessions typically begin with a parent or teacher providing clear instructions to a child, having the child help choose a stimulus (such as a toy), and focusing the child’s attention.

The parent or teacher then encourages the desired behavior (for example, asking for the toy or choosing “toy” from a list of words) by providing rewards if the child implements or attempts to implement the desired behavior. Parents and teachers often model the appropriate behavior or use the stimulus with the child. Activities that maintain existing behaviors are interspersed with activities eliciting new behaviors. The complexity of the required responses increases as training progresses. Parents, teachers, and peers collaboratively implement the practice at school, at home, and in the community.

PRT can be used with autistic children aged 2–18. PRT is also known as Pivotal Response Therapy, Pivotal Response Treatment®, or Natural Language Paradigm.

The WWC recently reviewed the research on the effects of PRT and found no discernible effects on communication/language competencies for children and students with an autism spectrum disorder.

PRT was found to have no discernible effects on communication/language competencies for children and students with an autism spectrum disorder.

Functional Behavioral Assessment-based Interventions

Children Identified With Or At Risk For An Emotional Disturbance

FBA-based interventions were found to have potentially positive effects on school engagement and potentially positive effects on problem behavior for children identified with or at risk for an emotional disturbance based on evidence from single-case design studies. The evidence from the single-case design studies for FBA-based interventions does not reach the threshold to include single-case design evidence in the effectiveness ratings for the social-emotional competence domain.

Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is an individualized problem-solving process for addressing student problem behavior. An assessment is conducted to identify the purpose or function of a student's problem behavior. This assessment process involves collecting information about the environmental conditions that precede the problem behavior and the subsequent rewards that reinforce the behavior. The information that is gathered is then used to identify and implement individualized interventions aimed at reducing problem behaviors and increasing positive behaviors.

The studies evaluating FBA examine different FBA-based interventions identified for each student. FBA-based interventions can be used to address diverse problem behaviors, such as disruptive and off-task behaviors, noncompliance, and inappropriate social interactions.

The WWC recently reviewed the research on FBA-based interventions to determine the impacts on children identified with or at risk for an emotional disturbance. Based on the research, FBA-based interventions were found to have potentially positive effects on school engagement and problem behavior.

Importance of Academic Preparation for Spanish-Speaking Students


Spanish-speaking students in Washington state take fewer advanced courses and earn lower grades in those courses than other language minority students and English-only speakers, according to a new study from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. These outcomes occur regardless of whether Spanish speakers—the largest group of language-minority students in Washington—are classified as English learners.

However, differences in advanced course enrollment and performance disappear when students have the same grade point average and test scores in the prior school year. This suggests that gaps in advanced course enrollment and performance could diminish or disappear if schools and districts can successfully improve the content mastery of Spanish-speaking students in earlier grades.
The study examined differences in advanced course enrollment and performance for groups of language minority students and native English speakers in Washington state high schools. With data from more than a million students enrolled in Washington state high schools between 2009/10 and 2012/13, the study used regression analysis and calculations of percentages and averages to highlight outcomes for Spanish-speaking students—the largest group of language minority students in the state—and for students from other language backgrounds, including native English speakers. 

The study found that Spanish-speaking students, regardless of their English learner status, take fewer advanced courses than English-only speakers and speakers of other languages. Spanish-speaking students also earn lower grades in advanced courses than non–Spanish-speaking students, but these differences disappear when students have the same grade point average and test scores in the prior year and attend the same school. In addition, schools with the lowest percentage of Spanish-speaking English learner students offer more advanced courses than schools with higher percentages of these students. 

The findings suggest that school districts may want to identify gaps and monitor progress toward the goal of equitable advanced course offerings for all students. In doing so, they should take into account the fact that language minority students are a heterogeneous group and that different supports and approaches may be needed for students who speak different languages.