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Are You a Skeptical Research Consumer?

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Last week, I attended a regional special education law conference. One of the keynote speakers was attorney Jose L. Martin from the Richards Lindsay and Martin law firm of Austin, TX. He also conducted one of the breakout sessions which was titled, "Understanding the Modern Requirements for Considertation of Research Based Interventions." He talked about what both IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) and NCLB (No Child Left Behind) say about either scientifically based research or peer-reviewed research. NCLB calls for the use of "scientifcally based research" as the foundation for many education programs and for classroom instruction. IDEA states that IEPs (Individual Education Plans) need to include "a statement of the special education and related servcies and supplementary aids and services, based on 'peer reviewed research' to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child..."

One of his final remarks got me to thinking which is leading to my point for this post. He said that we should "train staff to be skeptical 'research consumers' so that they can scrutinize research on methodologies for its theoretical base, implementation and replicability information, and evidence of effects on student achievement."

So, I got to wondering, how I would begin to do that? I also wondered if some of you are already doing this with your staff. As consumers of many things, there are times when we want to read and know the research on something and there are other times when the product maybe looks good, seems simple enough and someone we know is also using it, so that's good enough for me - I'll buy it. Should a teacher care about the research or is that only for the administrator to be concerned about and/or the curriculum team that recommends purchasing of products?

How do I help special education teachers, who are doing a lot of individualized instruction for students with varying abilities and needs, focus on instruction that is research based? When they want to order something that caught their eye in a catalog, what consumer questions should they be asking themselves first before submitting their order?

The same questions might apply when a request comes for a workshop that a teacher wants to attend. I try to look at the flyer to see if there is any research to the topic or is it just someone making the educational circuit promoting an idea/product that is going to "fix" the children with disabilities or supposedly make life easier for the teacher?

We have all been taught to read the labels on the foods we buy so that we are better able to make decisions about what we put into our bodies. The same goes for medications and over-the-counter products. But what about the instructional products or strategies we use with our students? How are you teaching your teachers to be better consumers so that they are using scientifically based or peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable as stated in both NCLB and IDEA? How will we answer the question from parents or legal advocates at IEP meetings when they ask what the research says about the specialized services we are providing their child?

Obviously, the beginning is to start having these discussions with teachers to get them thinking about being better research consumers. It's a process that will take time. I think that just as we keep talking about "data driven decision making" or "response to interventions" or "positive behavioral instructional strategies" that if we keep talking about 'research based" services, we will come to understand it more and be better educational practitioners in the long run.

Is there anything you are doing now, either with your staff or on an individual basis, to become better research consumers?

Reggie Engebritson

10 Comments

Excellent topic. As an OT our department relies heavily on past practice that is supported by research, however the body of research re. school related service in our field is only now really emerging. It is difficult in any field to have the time to be discriminating consumers of research given the demands on our time; however our professional organization AOTA has started providing topic research reviews with quality indicators that is available to practitioners. Given the extraordinary demands on special education teachers to provide service, keep up with paperwork and mandated due process procedures I would hope that a best practice research review service or resource is available to them as well.

http://thefrustratedteacher.blogspot.com/2009/03/i-am-in-foul-mood-you-would-be-too.html

Unfortunately this is how we use research at my school. We are actually not allowed to see pertinent data!

As a parent, I have been providing research to my kid's teachers for years. Not that they ever read it, or if they do, that they feel empowered in any way to act upon it.

Your consumer questions are good (when my kids bring me things in the store, they have learned that they better know the price, and for cereal they should know how far down the list of ingredients sugar or other sweeteners appear). But there are other decision points beyond buying new stuff. Every year we set the amount of time for OT or intervention or tutoring in an IEP based on "that's what everyone gets." You can have a half hour of OT a week, because that's what you get. If half an hour a week is less than a therapeutic dose that will actually bring about change (something that should actually be measured by progress towards goals), the same kids will be receiving the same half an hour next year ad infinitum. For the most part that time with an OT is considered to be the whole service--with considerable balking at anything that spells out what the OT is supposed to be doing during that time, let alone whether there is any research to back it up.

I would think that the process of writing IEPs that conform to requirements of using peer-reviewed research, would provide an excellent opportunity for building capacity of staff to think in these ways. Maybe a good place to start would be by reviewing some of the assumptions about "how much" of a service kids are getting.

tft--I read your rant. I sympathize--certainly anyone presenting data for discussion should provide materials ahead of time, etc. However--trend data is easily accessible stuff. States require schools to publish these things annually. As a parent I follow trend data from my kids' schools. But, I would also support the presenter's assertion that if some kids are below proficient, it doesn't matter so much if last year's class was too. "Wait and see" if they get it by the end of the year is an approach. I don't know that it is the BEST approach. As a teacher, I would want something that I could defend a bit more appropriately--greater intensity, extended teaching time--something.

Just so you know, Margo/Mom, the scores we were perusing were district assessment scores, not available to the public. Of course, the teachers know what the trend is, as does the whole world!

Here's a question: Why should we write down what we already know, that no-one will ever read? I sure don't have the answer, unless it is hoop-jumping (I think it is).

tft--I have no idea why you should write down what your already know that no one will ever read. Is this a riddle?

I have frequently observed educators all too willing to do just that, however, in preference to planning plans that are actually implemented and monitored and evaluated. IEPs are one example with which I am very familiar, but school improvement plans are another. My observation is that too often these planning documents are treated as hoops--written with as little attention paid as possible and dutifully filed. One year later the process is repeated. There is no connection between one year and the next (unless one year's plan is copied over for the next year). Certainly there is no expectation of any "aha's" to be gained by measuring any results (although that would require making a plan that anticipated some measureable results--and many don't), or looking at them and determining which things were successful and which need to be tweaked or dumped.

If this is something that administrators lay on--well they shouldn't. If this is a way that teachers choose to act--well they are wrong. If both are complicit in this state of affairs--shame on both. I honestly cannot find out. Administrators tell me that they cannot change the way that teachers act. Teachers tell me that they are only doing the silly things that they do because some clueless administrator is making them do it.

But in the end--not too much changes, nothing can improve.

Margo/Mom--It's not a riddle. I heard it somewhere, on TV or something, and it struck me that it is what we do. Constantly.

In emergency response planning, those in the know indicate that it is the planning that is important, not following the plan. I think this makes sense for disaster preparedness; things may not be the way they were in practice, but having some experience with equipment and procedures--the planning--will certainly help, even if the "plan" is not followed.

I have a feeling this is what administrators are doing. The only problem with it is that we are not responding to anything emergent; rather, we are attempting to influence that which has apparently not been influenced much, nor does it seem to take to influence--poor school performance of certain groups.

Administrators are flailing because they, along with policy folks, have decided, or been persuaded, or simply ordered to see to it that schools/teachers shall be responsible for fixing what actually ails the whole of society--poverty and corporate influence/greed.

Teachers aren't going to fix that. And the more society is convinced--wrongly!--that teachers and schools can fix society, the worse off and more persistent the problems will be.

Thanks to all who have posted comments here. It's fun to know that people are actually "out there" reading these posts.

Margo/mom, I really appreciated your comments about the services that are in an IEP that appear to be what "everyone gets." And how we should be asking questions about how much service time a student is getting. I totally agree with you and I am asking these tough questions, plus asking to see the data to show progress when students have been getting the same services for years. I am not satisfied when I get the answer, "that's the way we do things here" because that's not good enough. I want to know why we do what we do in special ed and how are we accessing the general education curriculum to help students be successful.

I appreciate that you, as a parent, are also asking questions and I hope someone is listening.

tft-I agree that looking at data needs to be meaningful and relevant, or what's the point? Looking at district data is one thing, but then I would want to dig deeper into school data and then classroom data. Is there a classroom who has scores in reading comprehension higher than another classroom, for example? If so, what strategies are being taught by that teacher that could be shared with others? Or could that teacher do reading comprehension for all the classes in that grade and the other teachers rotate with something that is their strength?

I would like to think that having these discussions using data to figure out how we can support one another in trying to reach all students would be a welcome one for teachers both in general ed and special ed.

Planning time is needed to look at data and research based interventions so that we are making the best educational decisions for the students we serve. It's not about trying to reach the bar of all students being proficient by 2014. It's about doing what's right by kids and providing the strategies and interventions that help them learn best, given their individual learning styles and abilities, so that they can be the best they can be. That might sound very "pie in the sky" but I think it is more achievable than NCLB's 2014 goal.

Reggie, could it be that it is not curriculum, but rather, style, that produces better scores?

IOW, maybe how the teacher with high scoring kids does it is simply by that teacher's own unique style, personality, knowledge, or other non-replicable attributes.

And if so, all the reworking of curricula and classroom management styles won't do a thing.

Your idea of having one teacher teach one discipline is a good one, and one which we considered at my elementary school. Of course, all the teachers would have to be on board with it, so, there goes that idea!

Excellent discussion!

Four "one"s in 1 sentence!

tft - I heartily agree that it could be the teacher's style that is more of a contributor to higher scores than the curriculum. A teacher who engages the students, differentiates the curriculum and does both formative and summative assessments to determine how students are progressing is going to do much more in helping students to learn and be successful than the teacher who doesn't. That is why I said that maybe the teacher who does this in reading (for example) teach all the students in that grade, rather than try to teach their 'style' to their colleagues. Some teachers aren't comfortable teaching reading and would rather teach math to everyone instead. This isn't possible in the elementary setting, unless as the administrator I am willing to think outside the box and the teachers are willing to come with me. Also, in my "perfect world" I would use the SPED teachers to team teach with the gen ed teachers because they have skills and strategies to support the gen ed teacher in delivering the curriculum and they can add to the presentation (style), which will benefit all of the students and their different abilities for that subject area.

You are right - good discussion! Thank you.

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