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School & District Management Opinion

Small K-12 Interventions Can Be Powerful

By Hunter Gehlbach — January 06, 2015 4 min read
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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

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