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The Society for Research on Education Effectiveness: What Direction?

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Today I received a notice from the Society for Research on Education Effectiveness (SREE). The Society was founded at the instigation of the Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences in 2005. Like many academic activities, his one has taken a long time to get organized. SREE’s first conference was held in 2006. The first issue of its Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (JREE) has yet to be published. According to the notice explained that the second conference will be held in March of 2008.

The mission of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) is to advance and disseminate research on the causal effects of education interventions, practices, programs, and policies. As support for researchers who are focused on questions related to educational effectiveness, the Society aims to: 1) increase the capacity to design and conduct investigations that have a strong base for causal inference, 2) bring together people investigating cause-and-effect relations in education, and 3) promote the understanding and use of scientific evidence to improve education decisions and outcomes.

SREE’s development may follow a path typical of any academic confab, but it was not formed to be just another group of academics. It was formed to meet an urgent and practical need of national importance. Like the What Works Clearinghouse, SREE’s purpose is directly related to the challenges of defining and operationalizing the concept of “scientifically based research” in No Child Left Behind.

As explained in the text of NCLB, SBR is not an abstract concept, but a regulatory standard for determining what state and local education agencies will be permitted to buy with federal funds. In the case of the Reading First fiasco, the Department of Education’s mismanagement of SBR’s interpretation affected $1 billion in the sale of elementary reading products, services and materials, favoring the major publishers and doing material damage to the revenues of several school improvement providers with a strong grounding in research..

As the school improvement market has developed, WWC is the de facto “decider” on the question of which products, services and programs pass the SBR test. Education Week reporter Deb Viadero’s lengthy February 1, 2006 article on SREE implies it is supposed to be the informal forum where experts advance the state of the art in evaluation for the purpose of informing practical SBR standards. To do this, it is not only important to advance evaluation methodology and discuss actual evaluations, but to consider the practical matter of value. The school improvement market is not an abstraction, it is about educators looking to purchase “results at a price” from school improvement providers, and about the costs of evaluation techniques relative to their statistical and educational significance.

What does this mean?

First and foremost, SREE’s board should consist not only of university professors, but senior federal, state and local agency staff responsible for program evaluation for the purpose of regulation, and program developers from the for- and nonprofit providers of what’s actually being offered in the market. After all, most educators don't construct their own interventions, they buy them.

Second, the work of the Society and especially its conference should be based around questions, the resolution of which requires a three-way dialogue between academia, government and developers. This serves academia as much as anyone else, because after all, it would like to have a practical effect on society.

Third, in every effort, including its conference, SREE should be able to point out specific efforts and activities that draw the intelligent layperson, and especially educators to understand and use scientific evidence to improve education decisions and outcomes. If the layman can't understand evaluation at some level, an advancing state of art will mean little to public education.

When I read the March conference materials, and while I understand SREE was formed to permit a greater professional focus on evaluation, I see a menu of sessions that could just as easily fit into the annual conference of the American Education Research Association.

But my critique goes more to a mismatch of what education needs and SREE’s proclaimed mission versus the Society’s actions. I see a board that’s made up entirely of academics. I see nothing that would encourage the participation of experts from government or the school improvement industry. And I see nothing designed to help a layman like me understand or use scientific evidence in education decision making.

I have no doubt the group will advance human knowledge, but I think it’s lost a sense of the broader policy reasons why it was formed, and why inclusion of buyers, developers and lay people is required for SREE to perform its mission.

1 Comment

I think everyone in education is trying to jump the gun. In my opinion (I am a Ph.D. candidate in educational psychology), we need a lot more basic academic research done before we can really think about implementing "SBR". How many real instructional experiments do you think are recorded in the ERIC database, or in PsychInfo? How many of these looked at long-term follow-up? The programs reviewed by the WWC are just commercial products based more on guesswork and fads than science. Sure some of them may appear to work, but without a scientific understanding of why they appear to work their effectiveness will be severely limited. We will have no guarantee they will produce lasting effects, no reason to believe the effects will transfer outside of school, no knowledge of what aspects of the programs are important and what are just fluff, etc.

The fact is that scientists have almost always been unable to effectively study K-12 education due to the immense practical, political, and ethical restraints. If the government was serious about fostering a science of education they would set up fully-funded laboratory schools where scientists could actually test their theories. They would write laws allowing scientists to have access to schoolchildren and requiring teachers to actually follow instructions during research. They would provide grants and incentives for serious scientists to come into this field instead of shying away from it. How many people planning careers in science do you think are drawn toward education? Education is the last place you go expecting to find hard-nosed scientists, ask any natural science professor. Just to hazard a guess I would say that less than 10% of the faculty and students at any major school of education are truly scientifically-minded. Education simply does not attract this kind of thinking. We also need long-term longitudinal studies to assess the lasting impact of interventions. Who cares if scores go up for a year and then plummet? The point of school isn’t just to raise test scores. Until this happens real scientific progress will be slow and painful, with many reversals. There is only so much you can understand about a phenomenon if you cannot bring it into a controlled setting. The current state of educational science is not anywhere near up to the task being asked of it. The lack of stomach for basic research among policymakers and the public indicates to me that, as usual, they are looking for band-aids instead of real change.

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