Last week I wrote about a persistent problem in San Diego schools: The school district tries a host of different reforms to try to improve schools. But it often neglects to measure whether they worked.

This week I turned up another example of this problem. Last year, I wrote about a fascinating pilot program that aims to change the way children learn vocabulary. It’s not just a way to help kids win at Scrabble. If it works, it could help conquer the achievement gap:

The pilot program is supposed to level the playing field for poor children and English learners, who usually hear far fewer English words at home. Educators are increasingly realizing that vocabulary is a big deal. But not all children get the same chances to pick up words: One famous study found that professionals’ children go to preschool armed with more than twice as many words as children on welfare.

That smaller vocabulary can handicap children at school. Children who struggle to understand vocabulary get frustrated with reading when they constantly have to look up words. So they stop reading, which stunts their vocabulary. And the vicious cycle keeps going.

San Diego is trying to stop that cycle by teaching children how to teach themselves vocabulary.

So you can imagine I was a little frustrated to hear that, like many programs in San Diego Unified, it hasn’t been evaluated. Debbie Higdon, who oversees English programs, told me that one of the key problems was that only four of the original 12 schools that were trying out the program are still doing it, since schools have the option to keep the program or drop it. Four new ones have joined them.

Higdon, who is new to her job, said that no evaluation was set up before she got there, making it hard to try to gauge its effects in retrospect. Just glancing at test scores won’t do it.

“Some of the schools have had gains. But can I attribute their gains to the program? Not really. How can you say that that’s what caused scores to go up?” Higdon explained.

And the program may not survive next year because of budget cuts, she lamented. I share her frustration. It seems like a great program. Kids seem excited about it. Teachers are too. But without any clear sense of whether it worked or not, how do we know whether it’s worth saving?

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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