Education research gave us a lot to think about as 2016 draws to a close. Here are the voices, graphs, and odd findings in the research that captivated our attention this year:
Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon found widespread and massive achievement gaps between wealthy and poor students, white students and their black and Hispanic peers in the first of a series of studies based on a massive database that allows researchers to compare achievement gaps across districts and states. The methodology was fascinating, for all you statistical wonks out there, but the results were disturbing, to say the least: Some of the country’s most affluent and education-oriented communities had the widest achievement gaps.
John Protzko, a postdoctoral scholar in cognitive science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who analyzed nearly 7,600 participants in 39 randomized controlled trials of programs designed to improve students’ intelligence, but found overwhelmingly that their benefits faded away over time:
It's easy to think of this in terms of loss—you raised intelligence and now these kids have lost it," Protzko said. "But adaptation is a better way to think about it. When you remove the more challenging environment [of the intervention], the students adapt to the level of cognitive challenge they have. If you have an education intervention, it's not enough to introduce an intervention and when it's over, return students to the level of cognitive challenge they had to start with. You have to keep it going."
As researchers and school officials grapple with ways to keep more kids in school, the Obama administration’s “Every Student, Every Day” initiative aims to boost school attendance through a combination of mentorship programs for at-risk students and advertising campaigns, like this one:
The sixth comprehensive international comparison report from the National Center on Education Statistics found, among other things, how little interest American students had in reading: Only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys reported enjoying reading. Only girls in Italy and Russia and boys in England, Italy, and Saudi Arabia had lower rates of reading enjoyment than U.S.students. Interestingly, higher rates of both U.S. boys and girls reported being “motivated to read,” than to say they enjoyed reading. That suggests that while gender differences may contribute to reading achievement in school, educators may need to engage both girls and boys in the subject more to instill a thirst for lifelong reading.
Stanford professor Carol Dweck—who coined the term “growth mindset” to describe people who believe intelligence is not fixed, but can be improved—presented new findings with Stanford and PERTS Lab colleagues that suggest students in poverty are less likely to have a growth mindset, but having one benefits them more than their wealthier peers.
Strikingly, students from low-income families (the lowest 10 percent) who had a growth mindset showed comparable test scores with fixed mindset students whose families earned 13 times more (80th percentile)," said the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Chalk one up for tree-pulp users like myself: Among young adults who regularly use smartphones and tablets, just reading a story or performing a task on a screen instead of on paper led to greater focus on concrete details, but less ability to infer meaning or quickly get the gist of a problem, according to a series of experiments detailed in the Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
According to Geoff Kaufman, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute:
Even if you aren't multitasking, your brain has become so accustomed to operating in that frame of mind in that context that it automatically activates this mental script, we believe, that's leading to these differences."
A second study from Stanford’s Sean Reardon, this time with Ximena A. Portilla of the research firm MDRC, found a little more hopeful news on achievement gaps than the study I mentioned above: Income and racial gaps in school readiness closed significantly between 1998 and 2010.
“I think what’s surprising is that the income gap has narrowed ... when some of the underlying conditions—growing income equality and residential segregation—have continued unabated,” Reardon said.
Aaaand back to disturbing: A study by the Jack Kent Cooke and Century foundations found kids at the top of their class in a high-poverty school have a significantly better chance of dying in a car crash than attending an Ivy League school.
(Full disclosure: Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Inside School Research, has a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to support coverage of low-income, high-achieving students.)
“College admission for kids in poverty is profoundly unfair,” said Harold Levy, the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke foundation. During his own time as chancellor of New York City schools, Levy said, “I thought if you were really poor and really smart you wrote your own ticket, and that turns out to be just wrong.”
Here’s a good one to reread just before the New Year’s holiday: Researchers from Georgia State University and Montana State University found “districts with a four-day week started out with lower average scores than schools on traditional schedules, but saw a significant increase in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on both reading and math tests after they switched to the four-day week. Specifically, the researchers found that the shortened week was associated with a 7 percentage point gain in math scores and a 3 percentage point gain in reading.”
In yet more evidence—in the mountain of evidence—that bright students of color have a harder time getting access to gifted and honors programs, researchers Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding found high-achieving black students taught by a black teacher were three times more likely to be referred for gifted programs than those taught by a teacher of another race. When they were taught by teachers of other races, they were significantly less likely to be tapped for challenging programs.
Have an evidence-rich and equitable 2017, everyone!
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.