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For my year-end post, I’m highlighting 10 of the most important Proof Points stories of 2021. This year, I put a special focus on pandemic-related topics, particularly the effectiveness of “high dosage” tutoring and the lack of strong research evidence for several other ideas to help students catch up, such as smaller classes. 

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 my 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. 3, 2021. 

  1. PROOF POINTS: Gifted programs provide little to no academic boost, new study says

A national study raises big questions about whether gifted education benefits the kids who are lucky enough to be in it. Students’ reading scores were only slightly higher after receiving gifted instruction, moving from 78th to 80th percentile in reading on a national yardstick. The boost to math achievement from gifted instruction was a fraction of that. No improvements were detected in how engaged or motivated students were in school after joining a gifted program. 

  1. PROOF POINTS: Why reading comprehension is deteriorating

Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on student achievement, reading scores were deteriorating – especially among middle schoolers. Why is a mystery. Scholars debate three theories: money, reading habits and classroom instruction.

  1.  PROOF POINTS: Pandemic relief money is flowing to class-size reduction but research evidence for it isn’t strong

Cutting class size is a way that school districts are deploying their coronavirus relief money. It’s a very popular policy with parents and teachers but the research evidence for spending money on hiring new teachers to cut class sizes isn’t strong. Here’s a quick tour through more than five decades of muddy studies.

  1. PROOF POINTS: Paper beats pixels on most picture books, research finds

An analysis of all the research on digital picture books finds that reading comprehension is generally superior on paper compared to screens but the benefit of paper appears to be stronger for adults and smaller for children. Digital picture books can be a better option with nonfiction texts and for building vocabulary. Some digital storybooks were better; researchers found that certain types of story-related extras seemed to boost a child’s comprehension but they were rare. 

  1. PROOF POINTS: Test-optional policies didn’t do much to diversify college student populations

Before the pandemic, a growing number of colleges stopped requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores as a way to increase diversity on their campuses. But researchers are finding that the test-optional policy isn’t substantially raising the share of low-income students or students of color at colleges that have tried it. Diversity improved by only 1 percentage point. Why? Other achievements that admissions departments look for are also correlated with income.

  1.  PROOF POINTS: New answers to old questions about special education

A New York City study of 24,000 students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities finds that students tend to do better after receiving special education services – a vindication for the billions of public dollars that are spent on these services. However, Black students made tiny academic gains, almost zero on average, after being placed in special ed compared to other Black students with undiagnosed learning disabilities.

  1. PROOF POINTS: Graduate faster, learn less

Online classes present a paradox for college students. A study of more than 10,000 students at the University of California, Irvine, found that online courses helped students finish their bachelor’s degrees faster, but students tended to get lower grades in their online classes — a sign that they’re learning less than they would have in a traditional class.  

  1.  PROOF POINTS: Most manufacturing certificate holders don’t get jobs in manufacturing

Short-term professional certifications are exploding and lobbyists want more taxpayer money to fund them. But early research into how well these certifications are working shows a leaky pipeline. Adults who succeed in earning entry-level manufacturing certifications earned notably higher salaries afterwards. But only about 40 percent worked in manufacturing after obtaining a manufacturing certification. 

  1. PROOF POINTS: Nationwide, evaluating and penalizing teachers rarely works

Years after the United States spent billions on a controversial reform to boost teacher quality, a national study finds that teacher evaluation and accountability systems generally had zero effect on student achievement. 

  1. PROOF POINTS: Research evidence increases for intensive tutoring

Some of the strongest research evidence points to an intensive type of tutoring as a way to help children catch up. Education researchers call it “high-dosage” tutoring and it has produced big achievement gains for students in studies when the tutoring occurs every day or almost every day.

This story about the top education research stories of 2021 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 writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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