Slavin and “Evidence” Based Reform in Education

My first full time position as a homeroom teacher was at Veterans Elementary in Reno, Nevada. Veterans was a Success For All school and I was introduced to a reading program, with distinct reading components, as well as elements of cooperative learning. At that time, I also became familiar with the work of Robert Slavin, one of the creators of SFA, researcher and faculty member at John Hopkins University. Without getting into what I thought of the version of SFA I taught in the early 2000’s—I understand it has changed—I have always been impressed with Slavin and his devotion to research and evidence.

I recently came across a keynote Slavin gave that was posted to Youtube. Although I intended to watch for just a few minutes, I found myself impressed with Slavin’s blunt assessment of current educational policy and his obvious worry about how the term “evidenced-based” has been hijacked to maximize profit and sell districts on specious products and services. Here are several other key takeaways.

At minute 12:37 Slavin describes the constant “churning” of school reform. He notes that because the typical tenure of a district superintendent is 2.5 years, and because many superintendents are often embracing new policies, it never becomes clear what is working and what is not.

16:25: Slavin describes how in disciplines like medicine and agriculture, the best evidence wins out. He posits that in education this is not the case and notes that change in education often happens without regard to a thorough study of what is working. He analogizes education to fashion in that something comes into style and invariably falls out of style.

20:49: Slavin shares how “innovation” happens in education. That is, because everyone is moving vertically in the system, they bring with him or her a concrete sense of what should happen in a school or in the district. They are informed by their experiences instead of evidence or research. Thus, what they know well they advocate for.

At minute 22:29, Slavin gets specific and describes how we can build a system where “what works is what matters.” The keys include

  • There must be standards of educational reform that are refereed by an independent body. Those who fail to adhere to these standards would be challenged with legal consequences.
  • There must be demonstrative evidence of effectiveness. Things cannot merely look good, they must be proven to be good.
  • Any proven innovation must come with professional development, materials and fit with the capacity of a system.
  • The government would only financially support those reforms that have proven to work.

Listening to Slavin I found myself hoping more people will watch this keynote. I am continually being asked to do things in my classroom that lack evidence or contradict another established reform. Moreover, very little attention is really paid to how much time a reform or new effort might be required of a teacher or administrator. As a result, everything becomes muddied and nothing seems to work as well as it could.

You can access the keynote here.

About Aaron Grossman

I am a 5th grade teacher at Roy Gomm Elementary in Reno, Nevada. I started working with elementary students as part of the Montana Reads program and AmeriCorps. In 2001, after graduating from the University of Montana and moving to Reno, Nevada, I student taught at Rita Cannan Elementary before receiving a 6th grade position at Veterans Elementary. I moved out of the classroom to be a Literacy Coordinator, then an Instructional Coach, and finally a School Improvement Program Coordinator. In 2011, I began working on the Nevada Academic Content Standards in the district’s Curriculum & Instruction Department. I returned to the classroom for the 2015-2016 school year to teach 4th grade at Huffaker Elementary. Before returning to the classroom, I helped develop the Core Task Project that has been featured by National Public Radio, the Gates Foundation, American Radio Works, Eduwonk, the Fordham Institute, Vox, and the Center for American Progress. In 2014, I received the Leader to Learn From Award for my teacher-centered initiative and work to bring college, career, and civics ready outcomes into Northern Nevada classrooms (here). In 2015, I was appointed by Governor Sandoval serve on the Statewide RPDP Council. The same year, Nevada’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Canavero placed me on the state’s State Improvement Team. This year I will be part of the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Advisory Group. I am Google Certified Educator and a Nevada Teacher Ambassador. I believe strongly that teaching content is teaching reading and I make sure my students have ample opportunities to work with social studies, history, science and art outcomes. I do what I can to blend the learning for my students and this blog is part of that effort. You can contact me at
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