What Happens in 2014?

Yesterday, a who’s who of the education blob gathered to discuss the future of education research.  Hosted by Education Sector, AED, AIR, and the Knowledge Alliance, folks gathered for “Towards 2014: Education Research on the Leading Edge of School Improvement?” 

It was an opportunity to soak in all that Checker Finn, Russ Whitehurst, Rick Hess, Mike Smith, and the like have to say about the state of education research.  The forum was a follow-up to a similar event hosted by similar organizations back in 2002, when we were all just learning to let scientifically based research roll of our tongues (and before IES was even part of our vocabulary).

For those who missed it, you can get the main thrust from Knowledge Alliance President Jim Kohlmoos’ guest blog on edbizbuzz — http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2008/05/friday_guest_column_is_educati.html#more.

What is particularly interesting is how little seems to have changed over the past six years.  Yes, we are all now aware of what SBR is, and why it is important.  But we seem to still struggle in two key areas, agreeing on what SBR is and applying it to practice.

For many, SBR is like the popular definition of pornography — we know it when we see it.  Ask us to define scientifically based research (as it applies to education) and we grasp for words.  Show us a recently completed research study or a journal article, and we can tell you whether it makes the cut or not.  Isn’t diagnosing SBR after the fact what has gotten us in the trouble we’re in?  Shouldn’t we know if a study meets the scientific standards BEFORE we have spent millions of dollars on its execution?  Without a firm understanding of methodologies and research models, we risk a system where we simply slap an SBR label on the outcomes we happen to like.

We don’t seem to have this problem in medicine.  We know what are scientifically based studies and what are surgically enhanced fluff.  So why is education so different? 

Some will use the statistic Russ Whitehurst uses — that the research portion of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget is less than one half of one percent of the total budget, where Health and Human Services is spending nearly 42 percent of its budget on research.  Doesn’t that mean it is even easier for ED to ensure that its research dollars are wisely spent?

I’ll be the first to advocate for additional spending on educational research.  In many urban school districts — those with schools branded as dropout factories — we are spending $10,000, $12,000, even $15,000 per student on education.  As taxpayers, we have a right to know our money is well-spent.  As parents, we have a right to know that our kids are getting effective instruction.  As members of our social community, we have the right to know our schools work.  Research is the cornerstone to all of that.

Which gets us back to the previous issue — we’re still struggling to put SBR to use in the classroom.  We understand the power of the buzzword, and are quick to describe our ideas or solutions as research-based or proven-effective.  But have we really studied what is happening the classroom?  Are we really measuring the effectiveness of specific interventions over the long term?  Are we really looking at the comprehensive research base available before deciding on a textbook or supplemental material?  Are we making sure what works is what we are using?

Unfortunately, “no” seems to be used an awful lot to answer those questions.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.  At the forum, Checker Finn called for one-stop shops on educational research, where we all have more access to statistical information.  Add to that the means to train teachers, administrators, and decisionmakers to both understand and apply SBR, and we may have a real winner here. 

Data is important, but it is also dangerous.  Put it in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand what they are looking at (or worse, thinks they do when they don’t), and you can do far more damage than just maintaining the status quo.  As part of our ed R&D investment, we should be training a cadre of educator scientists who help practitioners distill the facts, identify what works, and move that research into practice.  That was the goal, six years ago, with NCLB and SBR.  And that should still be our goal today.

Yes, Eduflack knows he is a cynic.  But after this forum, he is cautiously optimistic.  SBR is no longer a punchline to a status quoer’s ed reform joke.  We all seem to understand the importance of sound, replicable research.  Now, we are starting to break it down and see what makes the cut and what hits the trash.  With luck (and real commitment), we should see some wholesale understanding and implementation by 2014.  Let’s just hope we’re all there to see it (and still give a damn about it).


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