2018 Education Research in Review

January 2019, By Dr. Hope Dugan

I love research and I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading and reviewing studies. As we usher in 2019, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the headline-making education research from last year. Some of the research was expected and yielded expected results while other research refuted long-held ideas about what is effective. Let’s take a look at some of the studies making headlines last year.

  1. Reduced funding negatively impacts student achievement. Two education journalists published research findings indicating that, contrary to popular-held belief, increased funding increases student success. “There’s this notion out there that increased spending doesn’t help [students],….There’s good evidence that indeed increased spending does help — it increases student test scores and it improves later life outcomes.” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director the Hamilton Project.

  2. Edutopia also reported on several studies that suggest there is a causal link between funding and student achievement. Additional research suggests that when states cut funding in the wake of an economic downturn, test scores and graduation rates both plummet. Cutting per-student spending by 10 percent throughout a student’s high-school years reduces their likelihood of graduating by nearly 3 percentage points. Another study indicated when states increased spending, substantial increases in federal NAEP exam scores were noted. Other research has linked more spending to higher graduation ratesand greater social mobility. State-specific studies have pointed to similar results and research in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio found additional education spending resulted in student gains.

  1. SocialEmotional Learning (SEL) is a continued area of interest. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development noted that “…social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic development are “deeply intertwined” and “all are central to learning and success.” Another research report, What Do Test Scores Miss? The Importance of Teacher Effects on Non–Test Score Outcomes, noted that student behavior is a much stronger predictor of future success than test scores. This large-scale study completed by Northwestern University and the National Bureau of Economic Research included over 500,000 9th graders and indicated “…the impact of teachers on behavior is 10 times more predictive of whether they increase students’ high school completion than their impacts on test scores.” Moreover, teachers who maintained focus on helping students improve their behaviors showed a statistically significant impact in increasing graduation rates.

  2. Welcome students at your door. One study (Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy) found both psychological and academic benefits when teachers greet students as they enter their rooms. Some of the reported benefits included: A 20-point increase in engagement and a 9-point decrease in negative behaviors. Check out this ABC news video of fifth-grade teacher, Barry White Jr., in Charlotte, North Carolina greeting each of his students. This heart-warming story made national news last year.

  3. Growth mindset interventions may support at-risk students. The Meta-Analysis, To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? indicated that Carol Dweck’s ideas about growth mindset may not have the overarching impact once thought. Two analyses, on over 400,000 subjects, were conducted examining the strength of the relationship between mind-set and academic achievement. The outcomes for both indicated minimal effect. The report, however, did indicate that low-performing students and students deemed at-risk are positively impacted by exposure to the idea and practices of growth mindset.

  4. New hope for successful scaling of pilot programs. The Journal of Economic Perspectives presented findings on the generalizability of small-scale pilot programs and concluded: “The promise of randomized controlled trials is that evidence gathered through the evaluation of a specific program helps us—possibly after several rounds of fine-tuning and multiple replications in different contexts—to inform policy.”

Not all research contained great news, however. There were many depressing reports and studies detailing, among other heart-breaks, the rising number of school shootings, teachers leaving the profession in droves, the opportunity myth (if you do well in school you will do well in life), and concerns about what the final ruling will be on DACA recipients. Here are some other headlines that made the news.

  1. Education Week’s annual state-by-state assessment, Quality Counts Report Card, an annual report that weighs academic, fiscal, and socioeconomic factors, indicated that the majority of states have a grade of “C” or lower. The 2018 US rating was 74.5 which was relatively flat, only up .3 from 2017. The 2018 score reflects a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses and indicated substantial disparities between high and low-performing states. (Massachusetts bringing in the first place prize with a score of 86.8 with New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut close behind. New Mexico and Nevada received the lowest scores – 66.2 and 65, respectively.) On a positive note, high school graduation and postsecondary participation rates are up but schools continue to struggle with large achievement and funding gaps.

  2. Implicit bias disproportionately impacts African-American In a frightening report, researchers at UNC – Chapel Hill reported that more than 10 percent of children born between 1998 and 2000 in large US cities were suspended or expelled by age nine. They also noted extreme racial disparity with 40 percent of non-Hispanic, African-American boys suspended or expelled as compared to only 8 percent of non-Hispanic white or other-race boys. The study also concluded that those findings, among other results, implied school discipline policies rely heavily on exclusionary punishment which may be a co-variable to inequalities.

  3. Teachers are seriously stressed out. A study in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers experience high levels of stress. There were many stressors noted including long hours, heavy workload, emotional exhaustion, and feeling pressure to increase student outcomes without proper resourcing. The study sorted teachers into 4 groups, based on their stress level and their ability to cope with stress. These teacher groups were then linked to student academic outcomes. As one would expect, teachers in the high stress/high burnout/low coping categories were associated with the lower student outcomes.

2018 was an interesting year in education research. In 2019 I predict that we will see more studies on how education technologies impact students, the importance of STEM, CTE, and SEL learning opportunities, and continuing research into personalized learning. I also expect continuing research on the achievement gap, bias in the school, and other social justice issues. I look forward to more reading and learning in 2019!

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