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Friday Guest Column: Is Education Research on the Leading Edge of School Improvement?

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Jim Kohlmoos is President and CEO of Knowledge Alliance

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Back in March of 2002 Knowledge Alliance (then known as NEKIA) co-convened a day long policy forum - “Research in Education: On the Leading Edge of School Improvement?” - in Washington DC to explore stronger connections between education research and school improvement efforts nationwide. At the time some folks believed that this topic would not generate more than a passing interest among a few policy wonks. But it was indeed a hot issue.

Just a few months after the passage of No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) there were all sorts of questions surrounding the term “scientifically based research” which had been planted in the statute in over 100 places. And there was a big interest in how the federally supported R&D infrastructure in education could be restructured through the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA - which was up for reauthorization at the time). The forum was "standing room only" (SRO) and the conversations were hot and heavy about quality and relevance and utilization. We produced a summary document of the gathering and eventually an Education Week commentary calling for a “new education knowledge infrastructure”. (Find here.) In the burgeoning era of education reform under NCLB and ESRA, education research seemed to be on the verge of forging a new central function in school improvement.

Here we are six years later and on May 13 Knowledge Alliance - with our partners Education Sector, Academy for Educational Development, and American Institutes for Research - will reprise that now historic forum. We are expecting another SRO crowd (in an even bigger room this time) and an even hotter dialogue. (Register here.)

The reason for the continued heated interest? The overly simple reason is that the jury is still out - the question posed in the title has yet to be adequately answered. Indeed it is now a cliché that data, scientific evidence and research-based knowledge can and should shape policy and practice in education as is done in other sectors like medicine and agriculture. As that National Research Council’s seminal report in 2002 on scientific inquiry in education emphasized, the nation cannot expect “reform efforts in education to have significant effects without research-based knowledge to guide them.” But it is clear that education still has a long way to go before data and evidence are used systematically and effectively in school improvement to create a significant, wide-scale, and long-lasting impact on students.

As I think we will find during our May 13 forum, the situation is more complex than just an as-yet-unanswered question. There are all sorts of interrelated impediments to building stronger connections between education research and school improvement that have been frequently cited: bureaucratic isolation, inadequate funding, professional cultural differences, questionable quality, and irrelevance. I believe that the political will for school improvement also has a lot to do with the apparent disconnect. In fields such as medicine, defense, agriculture, and technology, the research and development (R&D) infrastructure serves as the leading-edge catalyst for experimentation, innovation and problem solving. When a serious societal problem is identified, the large and dynamic R&D sector is mobilized to generate and deliver solutions. That’s what Lance Armstrong is doing in his very public fight against cancer - calling for more cancer research. We need a Lance Armstrong for school improvement to help elevate the sense urgency for turning around low performing schools and for mobilizing the research enterprise to deliver desperately needed solutions. In this respect, the answer to the leading question in our forums depends as much upon demand (ie the intensity of the political pressure for school improvement) as upon supply (ie the availability of high quality, useable knowledge, relevant expertise, and research-based tools and services).

Ironically in the rarefied political environment of this election year we are witnessing diminished - not elevated - political demand for education and school improvement at the federal level. The presidential candidates have thus far barely mentioned education as a domestic priority. Work in Congress on both the reauthorization of ESEA and the appropriations for FY 2009 has come to a virtual standstill. The administration has not been able to stir more than fleeting national attention on education issues. The prospects for meaningful action and attention for the rest of this year are not promising. We will undoubtedly be stuck in a holding pattern and the answer to our leading question will likely continue to go unanswered in terms of policy. But the hope lies in 2009 when, as I mentioned in my previous adapted edbizuzz article, the flood gates of pent up demand will open … and a new knowledge era in school improvement will be launched.


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1 Comment

You raise some very interesting points, and I'm looking forward to hearing more at the May 13th conference.

Coming out of the passage of NCLB, we assumed that scientifically based research was going to be a gold star or a Good Housekeeping seal that would allow us to intuitively know what works and what doesn't when it comes to classroom instruction. Now, six years later, we know that couldn't be further from the truth.

Instead of looking for the seal, we need to do more work to educate teachers, policymakers, and funders on what good research truly is. How do we know something works? What questions do we ask? Qualitative versus quantitative? Process versus outcome?

Yes, we as a nation need to invest far, far more into educational R&D. But we also need to make sure the end users understand the research. Otherwise, we just keep looking for more quick fixes and silver bullets, allowing more opportunities for "research" to be mis-used and misunderstood.

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  • Patrick Riccards: You raise some very interesting points, and I'm looking forward read more

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