Talking Research

The very concept of education research seems to scare many.  Yet NCLB mentions scientifically based research more than 100 times.  While the intent is clear — ensuring that research is being used to guide policy and instruction — how exactly do we communicate that intent?  How do we talk about a topic — research — that is misunderstood, mischaracterized, and downright shied away from so often?

A few years back, I conducted focus groups with parents on the topic of scientifically based reading research, or SBRR.  The intent of these sessions was to better equip parents to implement SBRR in their schools and communities.  But the discussion quickly focused on the words themselves.  Parents didn’t like SBRR.  They didn’t want scientifically based research in their schools.  To them, it sounded like our schools were becoming the dens of mad science, where teachers were conducting scientific experiments in the classroom, with the children serving as the latest round of lab rats.

Of course, that was the furthest from the truth.  But it demonstrates how the policy venacular gets out ahead of the stakeholders we are trying to reach.  Talk to anyone involved in NCLB at the time, and SBRR was shorthand.  It’s in the law, they would say, and not give it a second thought.  To those on the receiving end, it was unfamiliar vocabulary with no rooted meaning.

Those focus groups, though, were significant and changed my thinking and my words.  Sure, I still use SBRR when talking to researchers or those in deep in the policy debates.  But when it comes to talking about NCLB or Reading First or SBRR with the parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders we are most trying to reach, it requires an all new vocabulary.

How do we talk about research in a meaningful and thoughtful way?  A few simple words are all that is needed:
* Proven
* Effective
* What works

When discussing education research, inevitably, words like assessments, data, fidelity, disaggregation, and the like quickly surface.  All important words, yes, but most have little meaning in the context of getting a fourth grader to read at grade level or helping a first grader for whom English is a second language.  At the end of the day, teachers and parents just want answers to a few simple questions: Does it work in a school like mine?  In a class like mine?  With kids like mine?  It is proven effective?

Translation: RF isn’t about implementing SBRR in the classroom.  It is about ensuring that our reading instruction strategies are proven effective.  That we are doing what we know works.  That we are doing what is successful in teaching children to read.  That’s what parents and teachers want to hear, and, at the end of the day, that is what research is all about.

When it comes to healthcare, you rarely hear a pharmaceutical company or the FDA say that a drug is “scientifically based.”  We assume when we see the commercial that if they are selling it, they have done the research.  We just want to know if it will cure our allergies or our high blood pressure or whatever else ails us.  If it doesn’t, even if you told us it would, we’ll switch to another drug that will get the job done.

The same should be true in education.  In the era of NCLB, we should expect that interventions and curriculums are indeed scientifically based.  You don’t need to tell us that.  But do they fix our reading problems?  Do they fix our math setbacks?  Will they get our students to achieve at grade level?  If you say yes, but we find they aren’t working, we need to switch to an elixir that will deliver what it promises, a solution that will work with kids like ours. 

At the end of the day,  if it works for me, as it has worked for others, then it is research based.  That is how one effectively talks about education research — by demonstrating success.  
 

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