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10 of the most popular stories about education research in 2019

Debunking critical thinking, 'grit' and what goes on in gifted classes

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Proof Points

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For my year-end post, I’m highlighting 10 of the most well-read Proof Points stories of 2019. They are listed in the order of popularity — by the number of times readers viewed them on our website, The Hechinger Report. What stands out for me is how popular education trends, from social-emotional learning to school discipline, aren’t standing up to scientific scrutiny. The research evidence for education technology continues to be weak.

Thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my weekly stories about education data and research. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you next year. If you would like to receive an email newsletter and notification when the column comes out each week, please click here and fill out the form. Happy New Year  and I’ll be back again on Jan. 6, 2020.

1. Scientific research on how to teach critical thinking contradicts education trends

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, makes the case that one of the biggest education trends — critical thinking — isn’t taught properly in schools. An extensive review of the research on how to teach critical thinking argues for teaching students old-fashioned content knowledge instead of abstract critical thinking skills that don’t transfer between subjects and disciplines.

2. Gifted classes may not help talented students move ahead faster

Gifted education is getting renewed attention because it is one of the big ways that U.S. school systems separate children by race. This study found that students in gifted classrooms are learning the same topics and curriculum as students in general education classes. That calls into question why we’re separating bright kids into separate classrooms if they’re not getting an accelerated education. In a related column, “Is there a trade-off between racial diversity and academic excellence in gifted classrooms?,” I looked at how both the racial and ethnic composition of gifted classrooms and student achievement levels might change if we picked the top students in each neighborhood.

3. Research scholars to air problems with using ‘grit’ at school

One of the more popular concepts of the past decade — Angela Duckworth’s grit — isn’t standing up to scientific scrutiny. At least five studies have found problems with the underlying research on how grit is measured and whether more grit helps students do better at school.

4. The promise of ‘restorative justice’ starts to falter under rigorous research

Another big trend is to take a softer approach to school discipline. But research scholars are finding that it’s very hard for schools to implement restorative justice programs and schools that have tried them aren’t seeing much decline in discipline rates compared to schools that are disciplining students as usual.

5. The dark side of education research: widespread bias

An analysis of 30 years of educational research by scholars at Johns Hopkins University found that when a maker of an educational intervention conducted its own research or paid someone to do the research, the results commonly showed greater benefits for students than when the research was independent.

6. Research shows lower test scores for fourth graders who use tablets in schools

A mounting body of evidence indicates that technology in schools isn’t boosting student achievement as its proponents had hoped it would. In fact, a study from the Reboot Foundation finds that students who use technology more often do worse in school.

7. An analysis of achievement gaps in every school in America shows that poverty is the biggest hurdle

Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, calculated achievement gaps and racial segregation in nearly every school in the United States.  He finds that poverty rates are the biggest driver of academic achievement gaps but racial segregation matters because black and Hispanic students are concentrated in high poverty schools. If you haven’t clicked on the data for your local school, I encourage you to do so. It’s eye-opening.

8. Evidence increases for reading on paper instead of screens

This was my favorite meta-analysis of the year. A North Dakota education professor collected every study she could find that compared reading comprehension on screens versus paper. Paper beat screens almost every time.

9. Five years after Common Core, a mysterious spike in failure rate among NY high school students

After five years of high schools teaching to the Common Core standards, a local education policy consultant noted a sudden spike in the failure rate on high school exams in New York State.  These test results are pointing out that some students are having greater trouble learning the material than they used to. One hypothesis is that low-achieving kids who were introduced to Common Core standards midway through their educational career might have been harmed in the sometimes rocky transition.

10. Weakest students more likely to take online college classes but do worse in them

A January 2019 paper documents the rise of online learning and reviews a large body of academic research on the topic. The researchers conclude that most students, especially those with weak academic backgrounds, aren’t being well served by the kinds of online courses that colleges are typically offering.

Related: 10 of the most important stories about education research in 2018

This story about the top education research stories of 2019 was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth… See Archive

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