The National Board for Education Sciences, the advisory board for the Education Department's research agency, met today to plan next steps for the department's recently approved education research agenda.
Back in November, the board approved new priorities for the Institute of Education Sciences, such as a focus on ways to measure and promote effective teaching.
Jon Baron, the board chairman, urged IES to focus on finding and scaling up studies that show a significant effect in improving student achievement, even if they are "not at all scientifically interesting interventions, like book fairs or volunteer tutoring."
Yet NBES members Adam Gamoran and Deborah Ball argued that many promising interventions fail to be scaled up because there is not appropriate support to implement them in a new school site. They and other members suggested IES go beyond studying the implementation of particular interventions to look at the systems that must be in place for a new intervention to be implemented faithfully and integrated into the school or district.
"Not all interventions work in all contexts and for all participants," Mr. Gamoran said. "We need studies with reference to context, more nuances. I think we need to be more thoughtful, to give more scientific scrutiny to organizational conditions that support or impede implementation in the studies themselves."
Member Robert A. Underwood said he envisioned one day being able to identify specific interventions that would be most effective and culturally relevant for specific student groups. "If you can push a button and see 'what works'," he said, referring to the search tool on the What Works Clearinghouse site, "you should be able to push another button that says who will this work with."
Yet IES staff cautioned that the education field is still developing capacity to conduct highly nuanced research studies. Sean P. "Jack" Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said it has been very difficult to find the "active ingredients" that lead to better student achievement in a complex intervention such as a successful charter school model.
"We have 21st-century expectations of science and the answers it can provide, but education science is kind of behind," said Lynn Okagaki, commissioner for education research at IES, noting that many large-scale data sets and studies have only begun to be used in the last decade. "That's the reality. Like it or not, science takes time; we're getting there."
In related news, the final deadline for applications for the next round of regional educational labs was today, and while IES Director John Q. Easton said the shortened time frame for proposals, caused by the budget debate this spring over the labs' future, "had some people scurrying around," he said, "We're glad we survived and have some healthy competition out there."