blog posts and news stories

Report of the Evaluation of iRAISE Released

Empirical Education Inc. has completed its evaluation (read the report here) of an online professional development program for Reading Apprenticeship. WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) was awarded a development grant under the Investing in Innovation (i3) program in 2012. iRAISE (internet-based Reading Apprenticeship Improving Science Education) is an online professional development program for high school science teachers. iRAISE trained more than 100 teachers in Michigan and Pennsylvania over the three years of the grant. Empirical’s randomized control trial measured the impact of the program on students with special attention to differences in their incoming reading achievement levels.

The goal of iRAISE was to improve student achievement by training teachers in the use of Reading Apprenticeship, an instructional framework that describes the classroom in four interacting dimensions of learning: social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building. The inquiry-based professional development (PD) model included a week-long Foundations training in the summer; monthly synchronous group sessions and smaller personal learning communities; and asynchronous discussion groups designed to change teachers’ understanding of their role in adolescent literacy development and to build capacity for literacy instruction in the academic disciplines. iRAISE adapted an earlier face-to-face version of Reading Apprenticeship professional development, which was studied under an earlier i3 grant, Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE), into a completely online course, creating a flexible, accessible platform.

To evaluate iRAISE, Empirical Education conducted an experiment in which 82 teachers across 27 schools were randomly assigned to either receive the iRAISE Professional Development during the 2014-15 school year or continue with business as usual and receive the program one year later. Data collection included monthly teacher surveys that measured their use of several classroom instructional practices and a spring administration of an online literacy assessment, developed by Educational Testing Service, to measure student achievement in literacy. We found significant positive impacts of iRAISE on several of the classroom practice outcomes, including teachers providing explicit instruction on comprehension strategies, their use of metacognitive inquiry strategies, and their levels of confidence in literacy instruction. These results were consistent with the prior RAISE research study and are an important replication of the previous findings, as they substantiate the success of SLI’s development of a more accessible online version of their teacher PD. After a one-year implementation with iRAISE, we do not find an overall effect of the program on student literacy achievement. However, we did find that levels of incoming reading achievement moderate the impact of iRAISE on general reading literacy such that lower scoring students benefit more. The success of iRAISE in adapting immersive, high-quality professional development to an online platform is promising for the field.

You can access the report and research summary from the study using the links below.
iRAISE research report
iRAISE research summary


Five-year evaluation of Reading Apprenticeship i3 implementation reported at SREE

Empirical Education has released two research reports on the scale-up and impact of Reading Apprenticeship, as implemented under one of the first cohorts of Investing in Innovation (i3) grants. The Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE) project reached approximately 2,800 teachers in five states with a program providing teacher professional development in content literacy in three disciplines: science, history, and English language arts. RAISE supported Empirical Education and our partner, IMPAQ International, in evaluating the innovation through both a randomized control trial encompassing 42 schools and a systematic study of the scale-up of 239 schools. The RCT found significant impact on student achievement in science classes consistent with prior studies. Mean impact across subjects, while positive, did not reach the .05 level of significance. The scale-up study found evidence that the strategy of building cross-disciplinary teacher teams within the school is associated with growth and sustainability of the program. Both sides of the evaluation were presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, March 6-8, 2016 in Washington DC. Cheri Fancsali (formerly of IMPAQ, now at Research Alliance for NYC Schools) presented results of the RCT. Denis Newman (Empirical) presented a comparison of RAISE as instantiated in the RCT and scale-up contexts.

You can access the reports and research summaries from the studies using the links below.
RAISE RCT research report
RAISE RCT research summary
RAISE Scale-up research report
RAISE Scale-up research summary


Conference Season 2015

Empirical researchers are traveling all over the country this conference season. Come meet our researchers as we discuss our work at the following events. If you plan to attend any of these, please get in touch so we can schedule a time to speak with you, or come by to see us at our presentations.


We are pleased to announce that we will have our fifth appearance at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP). Join us in the afternoon on Friday, February 27th at the Marriott Wardman Park, Washington DC as Empirical’s Senior Research Scientist Valeriy Lazarev and CEO Denis Newman present on Methods of Teacher Evaluation in Concurrent Session 7. Denis will also be the acting discussant and chair on Friday morning at 8am in Session 4.07 titled Preparation/Certification and Evaluation of Leaders/Teachers.


Attendees of this spring’s Society for Research on Effectiveness (SREE) Conference, held in Washington, DC March 5-7, will have the opportunity to discuss instructional strategies and programs to improve mathematics with Empirical Education’s Chief Scientist Andrew P. Jaciw. The presentation, Assessing Impacts of Math in Focus, a ‘Singapore Math’ Program for American Schools, will take place on Friday, March 6 at 1pm in the Park Hyatt Hotel, Ballroom Level Gallery 3.


This year’s 70th annual conference for ASCD will take place in Houston, TX on March 21-23. We invite you to schedule a meeting with CEO Denis Newman while he’s there.


We will again be presenting at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Join the Empirical Education team in Chicago, Illinois from April 16-20, 2015. Our presentations will cover research under the Division H (Research, Evaluation, and Assessment in Schools) Section 2 symposium: Program Evaluation in Schools.

  1. Formative Evaluation on the Process of Scaling Up Reading Apprenticeship Authors: Jenna Lynn Zacamy, Megan Toby, Andrew P. Jaciw, and Denis Newman
  2. The Evaluation of Internet-based Reading Apprenticeship Improving Science Education (iRAISE) Authors: Megan Toby, Jenna Lynn Zacamy, Andrew P. Jaciw, and Denis Newman

We look forward to seeing you at our sessions to discuss our research. As soon as we have the schedule for these presentations, we will post them here. As has become tradition, we plan to host yet another of our popular AERA receptions. Details about the reception will follow in the months to come.


Understanding Logic Models Workshop Series

On July 17, Empirical Education facilitated the first of two workshops for practitioners in New Mexico on the development of program logic models, one of the first steps in developing a research agenda. The workshop, entitled “Identifying Essential Logic Model Components, Definitions, and Formats”, introduced the general concepts, purposes, and uses of program logic models to members of the Regional Education Lab (REL) Southwest’s New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance. Throughout the workshop, participants collaborated with facilitators to build a logic model for a program or policy that participants are working on or that is of interest.

Empirical Education is part of the REL Southwest team, which assists Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas in using data and research evidence to address high-priority regional needs, including charter school effectiveness, early childhood education, Hispanic achievement in STEM, rural school performance, and closing the achievement gap, through six research alliances. The logic model workshops aim to strengthen the technical capacity of New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance members to understand and visually represent their programs’ theories of change, identify key program components and outcomes, and use logic models to develop research questions. Both workshops are being held in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Importance is Important for Rules of Evidence Proposed for ED Grant Programs

The U.S. Department of Education recently proposed new rules for including serious evaluations as part of its grant programs. The approach is modeled on how evaluations are used in the Investing in Innovation (i3) program where the proposal must show there’s some evidence that the proposed innovation has a chance of working and scaling and must include an evaluation that will add to a growing body of evidence about the innovation. We like this approach because it treats previous research as a hypothesis that the innovation may work in the new context. And each new grant is an opportunity to try the innovation in a new context, with improved approaches that warrant another check on effectiveness. But the proposed rules definitely had some weak points that were pointed out in the public comments, which are available online. We hope ED heeds these suggestions.

Mark Schneiderman representing the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) recommends that outcomes used in effectiveness studies should not be limited to achievement scores.

SIIA notes that grant program resources could appropriately address a range of purposes from instructional to administrative, from assessment to professional development, and from data warehousing to systems productivity. The measures could therefore include such outcomes as student test scores, teacher retention rates, changes in classroom practice or efficiency, availability and use of data or other student/teacher/school outcomes, and cost effectiveness and efficiency that can be observed and measured. Many of these outcome measures can also be viewed as intermediate outcomes—changes in practice that, as demonstrated by other research, are likely to affect other final outcomes.

He also points out that quality of implementation and the nature of the comparison group can be the deciding factors in whether or not a program is found to be effective.

SIIA notes that in education there is seldom a pure control condition such as can be achieved in a medical trial with a placebo or sugar pill. Evaluations of education products and services resemble comparative effectiveness trials in which a new medication is tested against a currently approved one to determine whether it is significantly better. The same product may therefore prove effective in one district that currently has a weak program but relatively less effective in another where a strong program is in place. As a result, significant effects can often be difficult to discern.

This point gets to the heart of the contextual issues in any experimental evaluation. Without understanding the local conditions of the experiment the size of the impact for any other context cannot be anticipated. Some experimentalists would argue that a massive multi-site trial would allow averaging across many contextual variations. But such “on average” results won’t necessarily help the decision-maker working in specific local conditions. Thus, taking previous results as a rough indication that an innovation is worth trying is the first step before conducting the grant-funded evaluation of a new variation of the innovation under new conditions.

Jon Baron, writing for the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy expresses a fundamental concern about what counts as evidence. Jon, who is a former Chair of the National Board for Education Sciences and has been a prominent advocate for basing policy on rigorous research, suggests that

“the definition of ‘strong evidence of effectiveness’ in §77.1 incorporate the Investing in Innovation Fund’s (i3) requirement for effects that are ‘substantial and important’ and not just statistically significant.”

He cites examples where researchers have reported statistically significant results, which were based on trivial outcomes or had impacts so small as to have no practical value. Including “substantial and important” as additional criteria also captures the SIIA’s point that it is not sufficient to consider the internal validity of the study—policy makers must consider whether the measure used is an important one or whether the treatment-control contrast allows for detecting a substantial impact.

Addressing the substance and importance of the results gets us appropriately into questions of external validity, and leads us to questions about subgroup impact, where, for example, an innovation has a positive impact “on average” and works well for high scoring students but provides no value for low scoring students. We would argue that a positive average impact is not the most important part of the picture if the end result is an increase in a policy-relevant achievement gap. Should ED be providing grants for innovations where there has been a substantial indication that a gap is worsened? Probably yes, but only if the proposed development is aimed at fixing the malfunctioning innovation and if the program evaluation can address this differential impact.


Study of Alabama STEM Initiative Finds Positive Impacts

On February 21, 2012 the U.S. Department of Education released the final report of an experiment that Empirical Education has been working on for the last six years. The report, titled Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) is now available on the Institute of Education Sciences website. The Alabama State Department of Education held a press conference to announce the findings, attended by Superintendent of Education Bice, staff of AMSTI, along with educators, students, and co-principal investigator of the study, Denis Newman, CEO of Empirical Education. The press release issued by the Alabama State Department of Education and a WebEx presentation provide more detail on the study’s findings.

AMSTI was developed by the state of Alabama and introduced in 2002 with the goal of improving mathematics and science achievement in the state’s K-12 schools. Empirical Education was primarily responsible for conducting the study—including the design, data collection, analysis, and reporting—under its subcontract with the Regional Education Lab, Southeast (the study was initiated through a research grant to Empirical). Researchers from Academy of Education Development, Abt Associates, and ANALYTICA made important contributions to design, analysis and data collection.

The findings show that after one year, students in the 41 AMSTI schools experienced an impact on mathematics achievement equivalent to 28 days of additional student progress over students receiving conventional mathematics instruction. The study found, after one year, no difference for science achievement. It also found that AMSTI had an impact on teachers’ active learning classroom practices in math and science that, according to the theory of action posited by AMSTI, should have an impact on achievement. Further exploratory analysis found effects for student achievement in both mathematics and science after two years. The study also explored reading achievement, where it found significant differences between the AMSTI and control groups after one year. Exploration of differential effect for student demographic categories found consistent results for gender, socio-economic status, and pretest achievement level for math and science. For reading, however, the breakdown by student ethnicity suggests a differential benefit.

Just about everybody at Empirical worked on this project at one point or another. Besides the three of us (Newman, Jaciw and Zacamy) who are listed among the authors, we want to acknowledge past and current employees whose efforts made the project possible: Jessica Cabalo, Ruthie Chang, Zach Chin, Huan Cung, Dan Ho, Akiko Lipton, Boya Ma, Robin Means, Gloria Miller, Bob Smith, Laurel Sterling, Qingfeng Zhao, Xiaohui Zheng, and Margit Zsolnay.

With solid cooperation of the state’s Department of Education and the AMSTI team, approximately 780 teachers and 30,000 upper-elementary and middle school students in 82 schools from five regions in Alabama participated in the study. The schools were randomized into one of two categories: 1) Those who received AMSTI starting the first year, or 2) Those who received “business as usual” the first year and began participation in AMSTI the second year. With only a one-year delay before the control group entered treatment, the two-year impact was estimated using statistical techniques developed by, and with the assistance of our colleagues at Abt Associates. Academy for Education Development assisted with data collection and analysis of training and program implementation.

Findings of the AMSTI study will also be presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) Spring Conference taking place in Washington D.C. from March 8-10, 2012. Join Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, and Boya Ma on Friday March 9, 2012 from 3:00pm-4:30pm, when they will present findings of their study titled, “Locating Differential Effectiveness of a STEM Initiative through Exploration of Moderators.” A symposium on the study, including the major study collaborators, will be presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on April 15, 2012 from 2:15pm-3:45pm at the Marriott Pinnacle ⁄ Pinnacle III in Vancouver, Canada. This session will be chaired by Ludy van Broekhuizen (director of REL-SE) and will include presentations by Steve Ricks (director of AMSTI); Jean Scott (SERVE Center at UNCG); Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, Boya Ma, and Jenna Zacamy (Empirical Education); Steve Bell (Abt Associates); and Laura Gould (formerly of AED). Sean Reardon (Stanford) will serve as the discussant. A synopsis of the study will also be included in the Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development.


Need for Product Evaluations Continues to Grow

There is a growing need for evidence of the effectiveness of products and services being sold to schools. A new release of SIIA’s product evaluation guidelines is now available at the Selling to Schools website (with continued free access to SIIA members), to help guide publishers in measuring the effectiveness of the tools they are selling to schools.

It’s been almost a decade since NCLB made its call for “scientifically-based research,” but the calls for research haven’t faded away. This is because resources available to schools have diminished over that time, heightening the importance of cost benefit trade-offs in spending.

NCLB has focused attention on test score achievement, and this metric is becoming more pervasive; e.g., through a tie to teacher evaluation and through linkages to dropout risk. While NCLB fostered a compliance mentality—product specs had to have a check mark next to SBR—the need to assure that funds are not wasted is now leading to a greater interest in research results. Decision-makers are now very interested in whether specific products will be effective, or how well they have been working, in their districts.

Fortunately, the data available for evaluations of all kinds is getting better and easier to access. The U.S. Department of Education has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into state data systems. These investments make data available to states and drive the cleaning and standardizing of data from districts. At the same time, districts continue to invest in data systems and warehouses. While still not a trivial task, the ability of school district researchers to get the data needed to determine if an investment paid off—in terms of increased student achievement or attendance—has become much easier over the last decade.

The reauthorization of ESEA (i.e., NCLB) is maintaining the pressure to evaluate education products. We are still a long way from the draft reauthorization introduced in Congress becoming a law, but the initial indications are quite favorable to the continued production of product effectiveness evidence. The language has changed somewhat. Look for the phrase “evidence based”. Along with the term “scientifically-valid”, this new language is actually more sophisticated and potentially more effective than the old SBR neologism. Bob Slavin, one of the reviewers of the SIIA guidelines, says in his Ed Week blog that “This is not the squishy ‘based on scientifically-based evidence’ of NCLB. This is the real McCoy.” It is notable that the definition of “evidence-based” goes beyond just setting rules for the design of research, such as the SBR focus on the single dimension of “internal validity” for which randomization gets the top rating. It now asks how generalizable the research is or its “external validity”; i.e., does it have any relevance for decision-makers?

One of the important goals of the SIIA guidelines for product effectiveness research is to improve the credibility of publisher-sponsored research. It is important that educators see it as more than just “market research” producing biased results. In this era of reduced budgets, schools need to have tangible evidence of the value of products they buy. By following the SIIA’s guidelines, publishers will find it easier to achieve that credibility.


Empirical Education Develops Web-Based Tool to Improve Teacher Evaluation

For school districts looking for ways to improve teacher observation methods, Empirical Education has begun development of a web-delivered tool that will provide a convenient way to validate their observational protocols and rubrics against measures of the teacher’s contribution to student academic growth.

Empirical Education is charged with developing a “validation engine” as part of the Measures of Teacher Effectiveness (MET) project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As described on the project’s website, the tool will allow users to “view classroom observation videos, rate those videos and then receive a report that evaluates the predictive validity and rater consistency for the protocol.” The MET project has collected thousands of hours of video of classrooms as well as records of the characteristics and academic performance associated with the students in the class.

By watching and coding videos of a range of teachers, users will be able to verify whether or not their current teacher rating systems are identifying teaching behavior associated with higher achievement. The tool will allow users to review their own rating systems against a variety of MET project measures, and will give real-time feedback through an automated report generator.

Development of the validation engine builds on two years of MET Project research, which included data from six school districts across the country and over 3,000 teachers. Researchers will now use the data to identify leading indicators of teacher practice on student achievement. The engine is expected to undergo beta testing over the next few months, beginning with the National Math and Science Initiative.

Announcement of the new tool comes as interest in alternative ways to measure the effectiveness of teachers is becoming a major issue in education and as federal, state and local officials and teacher organizations look for researched-based ways to identify effective teachers and improve student outcomes.

“At a time when schools are experiencing budget cuts, it is vital that school districts have ready access to research tools, so that they can make the most informed decisions,” says Denis Newman, President of Empirical Education. The validation engine will be part of a suite of web-based technology tools developed by the company, including [MeasureResults, an online tool that allows districts to evaluate the effectiveness of the products and programs they use.


Making Vendor Research More Credible

The latest evidence that research can be both rigorous and relevant was the subject of an announcement that the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) made last month about their new guidelines for conducting effectiveness research. The document is aimed at SIIA members, most of whom are executives of education software and technology companies and not necessarily schooled in research methodology. The main goal in publishing the guidelines is to improve the quality—and therefore the credibility—of research sponsored by the industry. The document provides SIIA members with things to keep in mind when contracting for research or using research in marketing materials. The document also has value for educators, especially those responsible for purchasing decisions. That’s an important point that I’ll get back to.

One thing to make clear in this blog entry is that while your humble blogger (DN) is given credit as the author, the Guidelines actually came from a working group of SIIA members who put in many months of brainstorming, discussion, and review. DN’s primary contribution was just to organize the ideas, ensure they were technically accurate, and put them into easy to understand language.

Here’s a taste of some of the ideas contained in the 22 guidelines:

  • With a few exceptions, all research should be reported regardless of the result. Cherry picking just the studies with strong positive results distorts the facts and in the long run hurts credibility. One lesson that might be taken from this is that conducting several small studies may be preferable to trying to prove a product effective (or not) in a single study.

  • Always provide a link to the full report. Too often in marketing materials (including those of advocacy groups, not just publishers) a fact such as “8th grade math achievement increased from 31% in 2004 to 63% in 2005,” is offered with no citation. In this specific case, the fact was widely cited but after considerable digging could be traced back to a report described by the project director as “anecdotal”.

  • Be sure to take implementation into account. In education, all instructional programs require setting up complex systems of teacher-student interaction, which can vary in numerous ways. Issues of how research can support the process and what to do with inadequate or outright failed implementation must be understood by researchers and consumers of research.

  • Watch out for the control condition. In education there are no placebos. In almost all cases we are comparing a new program to whatever is in place. Depending on how well the existing program works, the program being evaluated may appear to have an impact or not. This calls for careful consideration of where to test a product and understandable concern by educators as to how well a particular product tested in another district will perform against what is already in place in their district.

The Guidelines are not just aimed at industry. SIIA believes that as decision-makers at schools begin to see a commitment to providing stronger research, their trust in the results will increase. It is also in the educators’ interest to review the guidelines because they provide a reference point for what actionable research should look like. Ultimately, the Guidelines provide educators with help in conducting their own research, whether it is on their own or in partnership with the education technology providers.


Software Industry Sets High Standards for Product Evaluation Research

The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) announced the release of their new report, authored by our very own Dr. Denis Newman under the direction of the SIIA Education Division’s Research & Evaluation Working Group, the guidelines provide practical considerations and share best practices of product evaluation design, conduct, and reporting. Written primarily for publishers and developers of education technology, the guidelines reflect the high standards necessary to carry out rigorous, unbiased effectiveness research. Reviewers of the guidelines included Larry Hedges with Northwestern University, Robert Slavin with Johns Hopkins University, and Talbot Bielefeldt with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). A delegation of software publishers presented the Guidelines May 17 at the US Department of Education to John Q. Easton (Director of IES) and Karen Cator (Director of the Office of Education Technology). The document is now available to the public at the link above.