Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Small K-12 Interventions Can Be Powerful

By Hunter Gehlbach — January 06, 2015 4 min read

The 2014-15 school year is shaping up to be a litmus test for many of the ambitious initiatives created to address a number of formidable K-12 challenges. The Common Core State Standards face a high-stakes test in the courts of public and political opinion. Khan Academy videos, Chromebooks, and blended learning approaches will show that they improve student learning and proliferate, or fail to do so and fade from view. As stakeholders in the education of our youths, we should be thrilled if these bold programs improve student outcomes. But do we really need any more comprehensive, costly initiatives to fix our most challenging problems?

If history forecasts the future, these large educational investments will pay minute dividends. As we now race to the top after having left quite a number of children behind, we have to wonder why so many grand educational initiatives yield such limited benefits. One key reason why big reforms return few benefits is relatively uncomplicated: We design interventions from the adult perspective instead of taking a student-centered point of view.

We have every right to get excited about our lofty goals for our students. However, students crave the pursuit of adult-centric goals about as much as they yearn for more standardized testing. Until we start crafting our initiatives from the perspective of the student—from an understanding of what students fundamentally need to thrive—most of our big new reforms will produce anemic returns.

One key reason why big reforms return few benefits is relatively uncomplicated: We design interventions from the adult perspective."

When we conceive of initiatives from a student-centered point of view, the odds of a positive response from children soar. A burgeoning number of studies are adopting this approach by addressing young people’s basic needs for social connectedness, motivation, and self-regulation. Although small in scope, these interventions yield disproportionately big outcomes.

In 2011, Stanford University researchers Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen illustrate this student-focused approach by addressing a young person’s need to belong socially during the challenging transition to college. Among the many concerns students wrestle with is the haunting question: Do I even belong here? This is particularly worrisome for many minority students attending predominantly white schools.

Addressing an issue atop the list of undergraduates’ needs helped Walton and Cohen develop a potent intervention. The researchers first helped students realize that many of their peers shared their concerns around fitting in. Next, the students shared instances of when and how they overcame social adversity. Through this saying-is-believing intervention, the students came to view their doubts as transient, surmountable challenges. For African-American undergraduates, the intervention bolstered their sense of belonging, narrowed the achievement gap in students’ grades by 52 percent, and even improved health outcomes. Not a bad payoff for a one-shot, hourlong intervention.

Chris Hulleman, of the University of Virginia, and Judy Harackiewicz, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, addressed a different fundamental student need: motivation. Throughout the semester, they asked high school students to author short essays relating the content of their science classes to their personal lives. For the students who were less confident in their abilities in science class, the effects were impressive. As a result of writing these personally relevant essays, these students become more interested in science as a discipline, thus bolstering their course grades by about three-quarters of a letter grade.

As a final example, University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth and her colleagues’ intervention motivated middle school youths to try harder and persist longer on tasks in school. Unlike typical goal-setting tasks, the researchers asked students to anticipate obstacles to their goals and devise plans to surmount them. In other words, the intervention focused on a fundamental self-regulation skill middle school students need: developing strategies to overcome roadblocks. As a result, the students’ classroom behavior, grades, and attendance all improved.

The typical academic caveats apply to each of these studies: The findings need to be replicated before being widely adopted as initiatives. Their effectiveness may not extend to certain contexts. They do not work for all students all the time. And effective deployment of these interventions is complicated.

Scholars are increasingly developing thoughtful interventions that consider the basic needs of students, require minimal resources and classroom time to deploy, and deliver stunningly large results. That said, it would be naive to assume that developing educational initiatives from this student-centered perspective could be the silver bullet or secret sauce that will “fix” education. However, accounting for students’ core needs should be a prerequisite to designing education initiatives, if these programs are to have a chance at succeeding.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as The Power of Small Interventions

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Education Funding Webinar
From Crisis to Opportunity: How Districts Rebuild to Improve Student Well-Being
K-12 leaders discuss the impact of federal funding, prioritizing holistic student support, and how technology can help.
Content provided by Salesforce.org

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Stress, Anxiety, Initiative Fatigue … Oh My! Perhaps It’s Time to 'De-Implement'?
We see an increase in stress and anxiety that educators feel but never do anything about it. It's time to talk about de-implementation.
6 min read
De implementation
Shutterstock
School & District Management Video Education Week Leadership Symposium: Resource Center
Resource Center for K-12 education’s premier leadership event.
1 min read
School & District Management Cash for Shots? Districts Take New Tacks to Boost Teacher Vaccinations
In order to get more school staff vaccinated, some district leaders are tempting them with raffles, jeans passes, and cash.
8 min read
Illustration of syringe tied to stick
Getty
School & District Management National Teachers' Union President: Schools Must Reopen 5 Days a Week This Fall
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wants five days a week of in-person school next fall.
4 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, talks during a news conference in front of the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching on Sept. 8, 2020.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, talks during a news conference in front of the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching on Sept. 8, 2020.
Mark Lennihan/AP