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This is part 3 of a series that tells a story intended to help people understand the cultural context of changes happening in education.

From Oxford Dictionary:

snake oil
/ˈsnāk ˌoil/


informalNorth American
  1. a substance with no real medicinal value sold as a remedy for all diseases.
    • a product, policy, etc. of little real worth or value that is promoted as the solution to a problem.
      “the new tax plan was denounced as snake oil”
Snake Oil for At-Risk Kids

When federal grants were provided to serve the vaguely described “at-risk” students, many companies would package snake oil and market it as being great for whatever “at-risk” kids need. Often, the snake-oil companies would describe the reasons that at-risk students were not successful, and how their product would address the reason they described.  For example, when raising achievement and closing gaps was a top priority for grants, many grants proposals argued that low-income and minority students were not in advanced courses because they were disorganized and didn’t know how to take notes. So, they’d pay for staff to get trained and certified in a system to teach these students how to be more organized and to take notes. We noticed most students stayed in these courses year after year without ever enrolling in advanced courses even though they may have become more organized and better note-takers.

Changing Paradigm Changes the Market, But Slowly

When the grant paradigm changed to having measurable academic goals and using effective practices or research-based programs, one school system asked us to review their data for students who were served by this popular program to see if it was effective.  We reviewed many years of data for kids who were served by this program.  They were the entire academic spectrum; the academic ability of kids ranged from very far below grade level to the very highest academic standardized test scores year after year.  What the kids had in common were that they were either poor or minority or both.  The high scoring kids already got good grades in school before they were in this program.  To determine the effectiveness of a program, we have to know what the program is trying to do, then we can measure to what extent the program is doing that.  We asked the staff what the goal would be for high scoring kids.  How is the program trying to help them?  They didn’t already have goals because the program started during the era when programs were simply supposed to serve at-risk students.  They decided I should look to see how many students eventually took advanced courses.  Almost none did.  When we interviewed staff to ask why these high scoring successful students were never enrolled in advanced courses, they told us that they assumed that they were “at risk” because they were in this program.  So, they never recommended them for advanced courses.

We saw many school systems try to raise achievement and close gaps by using  grant funds for motivational activities, understanding-poverty training for staff, and curriculum resources that an expert claimed were great for poor kids.  We saw students being pulled from core instruction to participate in play therapy that was supposed to remove anxiety that kept them from reading.  This grant-funded program was designed and started during the old at-risk paradigm, and still going on when the paradigm shift occurred. We needed to compare the pre and post reading scores of the students served by this play therapy.  We found that most of the students served were reading at or above grade level before being pulled for the play therapy.  They were recommended for the program because they were seen as “at risk.”  Most fell below grade level after being pulled from core instruction to do the play therapy.  We commonly saw this.

Get Make-Overs to Raise Achievement

We saw high school girls get makeovers and glamor shots with 21st Century Community Learning Center funds, to raise their self-esteem and supposedly then cause them to be better students (The logic given was that good students have high self-esteem and then they’d be like good students). Many of them were good students before being served.  We saw students given iPads and basketballs to motivate them to want to learn algebra.   When we checked the algebra data, a significant number of kids served had already passed algebra, some with As. When we dug to find out why they would be serving students who had already passed algebra in a program whose goal was to pass algebra, staff told us that they had been operating this program for “at-risk” youth, and they thought that the only things that changed is that they were to now write an academic goal, and the evaluator’s job would be different. They didn’t think the program needed any changes.

In one program that required expensive training, teachers actually wrote essays for students and then graded them as if the students had written them. The premise of this last example was that students would gain self-esteem and have a vision of themselves as good writers, and then they would become good writers.  This cost a lot of money.  One fairly popular program reminded me of that game Simon, where you try to follow the sound and light patterns.  This was super expensive and supposedly helped at-risk kids with brain development that would help them learn how to read.  None of these programs were research based.  We checked.  The examples are endless.

Getting Rich From Snake Oil

People were getting rich from the snake oil, and it is easy to deliver.  It takes a lot more effort and skill to tutor a failing algebra student and help him pass than it does to distribute motivational incentives.

As the paradigm shifted, it became pretty easy for us to recognize who actually cared about helping the kids succeed vs who was helping someone get rich without having to work very hard.