Research Summary

Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) Validation Study. Converging lines of social-science research indicate that low-income children are most at-risk of falling behind in reading during the summer months. To prevent reading loss among low-income children, I have developed and tested, through several rounds of randomized controlled trials, the READS for Summer Learning intervention, a summer reading program for elementary school children. To validate the effects of READS in North Carolina public school districts, I am directing a five-year i3 project. My research team collaborates with Communities in Schools of North Carolina (CIS) and school districts in North Carolina to implement an innovative approach to combating summer loss among low-income children. READS is a summer reading program for upper elementary children (2nd-5th) who may experience summer reading loss. The three key elements (“ABCs”) of the READS program are: Access to books at home, including a wide variety of texts; Books that are well-matched to each child’s reading level and interests; and Comprehension activities, including teacher scaffolding of summer book reading through end-of-year lessons, and parent and family support of summer reading.

An innovative feature of our study is the use of three consecutive randomized experiments to test, modify, and improve READS over time. The first experiment, implemented in a single North Carolina district, tests the effects of the READS program that was implemented previously in Virginia, evaluates the effects of an enhanced version of READS to determine whether it can be made more effective, and identifies the most cost-effective version. The second experiment tests the most cost-effective version in a consortium of three school districts, including a rural district.  In the second experiment, we also improved the READS for Summer Learning program by including an end-of-school year family literacy event and follow-up phone calls with parents and families to promote home book reading activities. In the third experiment, we will evaluate the READS program in over 50 elementary schools in 7 North Carolina districts. In the final year of the study, we will collaborate with CIS staff to ensure fidelity of program implementation, to build support for the program, and to understand how key stakeholders use data in making decisions about expansion. This project is funded by the US Department of Education’s i3 grant, and matching grants from the Wallace Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Wells Fargo, MetaMetrics®, and several family foundations. 

Teacher Professional Development and School-Year Literacy Interventions. There is mounting evidence that good teachers and skillful instruction have long-lasting effects on a range of student outcomes. I have collaborated with researchers and practitioners to conduct experimental evaluations of several widely used strategies for improving student literacy outcomes, including intensive professional development interventions involving the Pathway Project, Teacher Study Groups, and the Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention. The Pathway Project is a professional development intervention for secondary English teachers who work primarily with mainstreamed English learners in California. The goal of the Pathway Project intervention is to improve the analytical writing and reading comprehension ability of mainstreamed English language learners in the middle and high school grades. The Pathway Project trains teachers to use cognitive strategies that enable students to understand, interpret, and write essays. Results from a year 1 and 2 experimental study suggest that students taught by Pathway teachers enjoyed significant improvement on an assessment of analytical writing and a standardized test of reading. I have also worked on an evaluation of a Teacher Study Group intervention in which first-grade teachers use lesson study to improve vocabulary and reading instruction. I am currently working with colleagues at the Strategic Education Research Partnership on a project, “Catalyzing Comprehension through Discussion and Debate,” which is designed to improve reading comprehension in grades 4 to 8. The Pathway Project, Teacher Study Group Intervention, and the SERP-led Project are funded through the Institute of Education Sciences. Finally and more recently, I am developing an intensive summer program that trains teachers to implement innovative instructional practices in a school-based summer program, with initial support from the Belk Foundation.

Out-of-School Literacy: Home-Based Interventions and Online Education. My program of research on out-of-school literacy interventions has focused on experimental evaluations of summer and after-school programs. A recently published meta-analysis of classroom- and home-based summer programs appeared in the Review of Educational Research. This research synthesis found that both classroom and home interventions produced similar effects on standardized reading tests, and that summer reading interventions were particularly effective for low-income children. I have also published several randomized experiments of READ 180, a mixed-methods literacy intervention produced by Scholastic, Inc. and widely used by many US school districts. These experiments shed light on several moderating and mediating variables that are related to student comprehension outcomes. Very recently, I have collaborated with graduate students in my research lab to study the effects of summer math interventions, including online math programs produced by TenMarks Education.  

The Use of Social Science Evidence. I am also interested in using experimental evidence to improve state and local policy and in studying the use of social science evidence in the policy arena. I have contributed to edited volumes that explore the relationship between social science research and education policy. In thinking about the relationship between experimental research and policy decisions, I believe there are several instructive and valuable lessons from the Tennessee class size studies, including Project STAR and Project Challenge. Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) was a statewide experiment involving over 11,000 elementary school children; it provided compelling evidence that small class sizes, ranging from 13 to 17 children, produced lasting cognitive, social, and economic benefits for children, especially children from ethnic minority and low-income families. Using the STAR results, state lawmakers funded Project Challenge, a targeted class size reduction policy in the highest poverty Tennessee school districts. Over time, the performance level of the Project Challenge districts improved from the bottom quartile to the state average. The Tennessee policy shows how results from large-scale experiments can sustain evidence-based policies that benefit vulnerable populations of elementary school children. At the same time, as I noted in a study published in the Brookings Papers for Education Policy, the misuse of the STAR results offers a cautionary tale regarding the limitations of experimental evidence in the policy arena.  In sum, I believe that experiments like Project STAR and policies like Project Challenge are critical to improving education policy and addressing income- and social-class disparities in student outcomes.