Thursday, June 28, 2007

Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won’t

That’s the title of a brilliant commentary by Ronald Wolk in the new issue of Education Week. It’s one of the best articles they’ve run in the last couple of years and should certainly be required reading for anyone working with education research. Some excerpts, with commentary:

In my idealistic days 25 years ago, I believed that education research would lead us to the promised land of successful schools and high student achievement……As much as I hate to say it—and I truly hope I am wrong—I no longer believe it, and here’s why:

Research is not readily accessible—either physically or intellectually—to the potential users. Summaries of major studies appear in periodicals like Education Week, by the detailed results (usually written for other researchers in academic-speak) are usually available only in separate reports or in relatively low-circulation journals that don’t reach those who most need to know.
The research that you see utilized in the schools is usually action research, usually carried out by the teacher as an individual or part of their team, and usually fairly meaningless to anyone but that one teacher. This is where “That’s always worked for me!” and “Oh man, this program was great!” come from, which is also the birthing ground of some of the worst habits in our schools.

And the heavy use of intelligentsia vernacular (like that, see!) is a major obstacle that cuts two ways; unapproachable language turns off teachers, and if you refine the reports too much (for example, turning the 500+ pages of A Nation at Risk into “Kids Is Dumb”), you risk losing the meaning in the condensing.

Even if research findings were widely available and written in clear prose that even a dimwit like me could understand, the reports would not be widely read. Most teachers are not consumers of research, nor are most principals or superintendents.

And even if educators and policymakers did read all the studies in a timely fashion, schools and education practice would not change very much, mainly because making significant changes means altering value structures, disrupting routines, and teaching old dogs new tricks.
My belief is that most teachers don’t care about research because there’s such a disconnect between the theory and reality. I’ll single out The Reading Teacher from the International Reading Association for a mild chiding here. They run research in every issue, but often times it’s impossible to see how you can translate what looks good on paper into a practical, useable classroom strategy. Schools are curriculum-driven; we trust that the curriculum is research-based, and during the adoption process some wag will often pipe up with a “What does the research say?” If there was research out there that said that an element of the curriculum wasn’t a best practice, most teachers would ignore the research and keep on with what’s in the teacher’s guide. It’s just what they do.

Moreover, researchers seem to delight in neutralizing each other. That’s easier to do in social sciences than the physical sciences because there are so many uncontrollable variables. And the bigger the question addressed, the more vulnerable the findings.

When one study claims small classes boost student achievement, another insists they do not. One study finds social promotion harmful; another says retentions hurts children more. Money matters; no it does not. Vouchers work; no they do not. And on and on.
This, too, is why teachers trust their own practices and their own numbers far more than they do anything that is passed down from the Ivory Tower. I can be a consumer and judge what’s working within my four walls, and I can mostly trust what I’m seeing with my own two eyes, but expanding beyond that invites a chorus of often discordant voices that may or may not help, and if I can’t trust that they’ll make my practice better, why bother?

It’s a good article, very thoughtful, and well worth tracking down. Highest recommendations!

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Blogger The Science Goddess said...

As I slog through my EdD program, I've been pondering this same issue. There is definitely some "esoteric" research out there which looks (to me) to be nearly impossible to translate into classrooms. But there are other areas (e.g. assessment and grading) where there is a large amount of information on best practices...and yet, it still goes ignored. I haven't figured out how to resolve this.

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