Last summer, Lory Hough published a piece in Harvard’s Ed. Magazine called “Does It Have to Be So Complicated?” The story outlined a number of simple, streamlined ideas that have been proven to have big impacts for students’ achievement. The ideas are powerful and are often supported by compelling evidence. But actually implementing them, as many educators know, is anything but simple.
For example, Hough points to the large body of research that finds starting the school day later helps teens focus and decreases drop-out rates, depression, and poor academic performance.
The article also points to the notion of scheduling physical movement during the school day, or using a school’s open house as an opportunity to talk with families about learning. Several anecdotes highlight the powerful impact of helping students access free transportation by paying for public buses.
Another idea was to send personalized text messages to students who are accepted into college to remind them of important dates and tasks they need to complete in order to actually enroll. As many as 40 percent of students who are accepted to a post-secondary institution do not enroll in the fall, and texting these simple “nudges” has been shown to increase matriculation by 4 percentage points.
Meanwhile, over at The Hechinger Report, Corey Drake writes about “four small changes” most schools aren’t using yet that can improve math learning. For example, making time for students to solve problems verbally to help them practice grappling with explaining basic math concepts.
Sounds great, right? Why not implement all these ideas tomorrow?
That’s where the tricky part comes in.
Education reform is complex. Even the best, most proven, ideas are difficult to put into place. Consider changing the time of the school day—how would that affect students who need to work after school, or need to take care of younger siblings? Or the suggestion of asking math students to solve problems verbally—how should teachers make extra time in their classes for that activity? As Hough describes, education “is probably one of the most complex, challenging things we do in our society.”
Part of what adds to the complexity is that schools and educators have been burned before by simple, “straightforward” ideas. Why not put a ton of computers in every classroom? Or give every student in Los Angeles an iPad? Without support for curriculum development or teacher pedagogy, it turns out technology alone does not improve learning.
Acknowledging these difficulties, isn’t it still worth promoting evidence-based ideas, even if implementing them is inevitably going to be a long, uneven, uphill climb?
For years, advocates objected to the dismal level of nutrition in school cafeterias, which about 32 million children eat at every day. After years of demands by researchers, parents, educators, and students, in 2012 the USDA issued new rules for healthier school lunches with less salt and fat, and more vegetables, whole grains, and fruit, for the first time in 15 years. It was small progress on one big idea, but new research shows the new regulations are working and kids are eating a healthier lunch.
“The creation of public school for all children—boys and girls, the rich and the poor—was, in itself, a big idea,” writes Hough. “In order to make some big initiatives yield bigger benefits, educators need to look more often at simple ideas that have proven to help.”