When Educational Promises Are Too Good To Be True
We recently have received a number of calls asking about franchised, for-profit educational companies that report that students can quickly learn to become better readers and thinkers. Some even lead the potential consumer, the parents, to believe that their child will make gains of many years while working with individuals within the organization for several months. These for-profit, franchised companies use parent testimonials to lure desperate parents, relieving them of thousands of dollars in the transaction.
We are skeptical of any organization that makes claims like these. At best, such claims raise serious questions about the credibility of the organization making the claims. At worst, these promises can create more frustration and loss of self-esteem if a child does not make the gains predicted. “I am not reading any better after working so hard with these exercises. Something must really be wrong with me.” Companies that tout such success can also do a real disservice to professional organizations that are doing good work using evidenced-based strategies. As one father recently told us, “I spent $10,000 (at one of these for-profit franchises), and it didn’t work. Now I don’t know who to trust.”
Another parent mentioned that a commercial, for-profit company stated that its program would “train the brain,” and the child would “get smarter,” and the program was even “guaranteed!” This parent went on to say that “…the memory issues we originally signed up for were NOT better and several of the results were LOWER than the initial test. The program proved to be more anxiety producing and frustrating for our daughter.”
The parents’ daughter completed the program and the daughter was retested and “…the memory issues we originally signed up for were NOT better and we still did not see any improvement. They said their ‘test’ showed an improvement, so they would not refund us and did not honor their guarantee. They gave us unrealistic expectations and we feel preyed on our desperation as parents searching for ways to improve the quality of our child’s life and life skills.”
Science or Pseudo Science?
Often these franchised companies try to trick the consumer by making something extremely complicated –like brain neurology and brain function—sound incredibly simple. As one franchise quotes, “We recognize that many childhood disorders are actually manifestations of a single underlying condition.”
This might lead the consumer to believe that by “curing” this condition, a host of the child’s maladies will disappear. This flies in the face of brain research, much of it sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), that suggests that different parts of the brain working together are responsible for complex cognitive processes and that the communication between these brain centers is often flawed. To infer that we can fix a single, underlying brain condition and that a child’s processing or learning disorders will subsequently disappear is disingenuous at best.
Franchised companies may also try to sound very scientific in their advertisements. This can lead the unsuspecting consumer to believe in their claims.Take this quote for example:
“The Brain is Changeable”
“It was once thought that the brain was static, unable to grow or change. But extensive research and in depth study of epigenetics has shown that it’s remarkably adaptable, able to create new neural pathways in response to stimulus in the environment, a branch of science called neuroplasticity. Additionally, it is now understood the difficulties associated with a wide range of learning disorders and neurobehavioral disorders result primarily from environmental influences that affect genetic expression and are therefore often correctable. Because the brain can change, and because difficulties can be corrected, children suffering from Functional Disconnection can be greatly helped.”
That the brain is able to rewire itself is not new science. We have known for decades about brain plasticity, but we have to question the author’s assertion that “neurobehavioral disorders result primarily from environmental influences that affect genetic expression.” Actually, the origin of most disorders is genetic, not environmental, but the author can lure the unsuspecting consumer by using scientific jargon with no supporting documentation or research. Many desperate parents fall for programs that promote themselves using scientific jargon like this.
Read the Fine Print
One customer of a for-profit educational company strongly recommended reading the fine print regarding any guarantee that the company might give. All the guarantee of this company means is that the student will have higher testing scores in two areas out of twelve tested. After spending $5,000 and almost 30 hours a week to complete the program, this parent’s child actually went DOWN in eight of the twelve areas tested. The only two areas the child tested higher were areas that were above grade level when he began the program. In working with a lawyer, this parent learned that “This guarantee is like a two-headed coin. There is almost NO way it will ever work in your favor. The owner does not have any desire to honor the guarantee. In fact, he admitted our whole experience was a ‘train wreck’ then turned around and said there was no way we qualified for the guarantee as his company met all their obligations (see the fine print). This in spite of the fact that our child did worse in 8 out of the twelve testing areas AFTER the program.”
Questions to Ask
Many programs that concentrate on improving a certain skill set—whether cognitive or academic—can show impressive short term gains on the skills that the student is practicing. This can be likened to spending three hours a day practicing dribbling a basketball. After six weeks you may be a good dribbler, but are you a good basketball player?
To judge whether a program is truly effective, we have to ask a few important questions including:
1. Do the short-term gains in specific skills translate to long-term gains (are the gains permanent)?
We have seen students work intensely on specific drills or computer learning games, and they can sometimes make impressive gains in post therapy testing on the specific skills they were practicing. Yet these skills often diminish over time, much like children who take music lessons. Children can learn skills while they are taking lessons and practicing, but if they put the instrument down for any length of time, they begin to lose these fledgling skills.
2. Does any short-term gain in cognitive skill development transfer to gains in reading, writing, math, or study skills?
Again, children can become very good at sorting exercises if they are given a lot of time to practice this skill, but does a sorting skill transfer to better reading, spelling, writing, or math skills? These program creators would like you to think so, but they can offer only parent testimonials to that effect.
3. Are there independent, peer-reviewed studies showing the effectiveness of a given treatment?
Before choosing a specific program for your child—especially one that makes claims that seem too good to be true—it is important to ask for, and receive, independent, controlled research studies that examine a specific program’s efficacy. We would recommend examining peer reviewed studies that are reported in a legitimate educational or cognitive psychology journal before you sign on (and transfer money) to a for-profit franchise. Often the research these franchises tout are studies conducted by the organization itself. There is a big difference between company research and consumer testimonials and an independent, scientific study of a specific therapy’s effectiveness. We think that you will find that there is a lack of these independent research studies for many of these therapies, probably for a good reason.
We should all ask difficult questions when buying a car, purchasing a house, or determining a specific medical plan of action. We should do the same when choosing an educational therapy which promises results that seem too good to be true.
Head of School, Groves Academy