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Making Progress on Evidence-Based Education Reform

Rounding out our month of guest bloggers this week is RHSU-veteran Eric Kalenze. Eric is the Director of Education Solutions at the Search Institute in Minneapolis and the U.S. organizer of researchED. He has nearly two decades of experience as a teacher, coach, administrator, and author. Regularly found at his own blog, "A Total Ed Case," Eric has kindly agreed to pull double-duty with us this week.

Hello again, RHSU reader! As a long-time fan of the ideas found at this space and a chest-thumping little-"r" reformer, I'm thrilled and honored to be back pinch-hitting for Rick.

To start this guest-blogging stint, though, I'm actually not going to offer up any straight-up takes about what needs improving in education. I'll get to some throughout the week, of course, but I'd rather use this post to polish off the Thanksgiving leftovers—to draft behind the gratitude in the air and actively appreciate something positive I've observed in education over the past year. After all (and as we in education should well know), it's just plain productive to balance critical feedback with—to borrow from the late Alex Haley—healthy doses of "finding the good and praising it."

Specifically, I'd like to give thanks that—though we're nowhere close to proficiency—the education field actually seems to have developed a pulse when it comes to using research and evidence. I've been within and studying education for a couple decades, and I can't say I remember a time when research and evidence were considered this important to people's deliberations about instruction, management, and policy.

Now that's not saying a whole lot, as we frankly had nowhere to go but up. Still, as illustration, here are a few items from 2017 that made me believe objective research and evidence had finally arrived:

  • A key aspect of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was its explicit commitment to using evidence to drive better outcomes for students. The Department of Education supplied guidance on how "evidence-based" was to be defined and, in order to "strengthen educational investments," states were expected to consider chosen interventions in light of such guidance. States' implementation plans were due in September and are currently under review.
  • While the past few years has had education's customary helping of out-of-nowhere, completely-untested-but-somehow-widely-idealized fads—er, best practices—the evidence-based scrutiny around them has been encouraging. To wit, just a couple examples: First, while the term "restorative practices" went viral in the wake of the Office of Civil Rights' guidance on school discipline, policy thinkers like the Manhattan Institute's Max Eden went into the evidence to see if such guidance and subsequent practices were actually creating healthier school cultures. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't look good.) Next, and similarly, personalized learning—which is in line to get major funding pushes as education's next Thing That Will Change Everything—has had its roll slowed a bit of late by writers and scholars dutifully asking evidence-based questions.
  • The international grassroots conference researchED (which I'm the U.S. organizer for, by the way) continues its North American growth, having hosted its third U.S. conference this past October in Brooklyn and, in early November, its first in Canada (Toronto). With the growing numbers of teachers and school leaders we're seeing at each conference, it's getting clearer that the evidence-informed practice conversation has hopped out of academics' and policy wonks' fences. School-based education professionals are looking for better answers than the evidence-weak ones they're too often supplied (or required to follow) by their schools, districts, and education media—and they're taking their own time to go where such answers can be found.

Taking hopeful signs like these into account, make no mistake: Our field's new appreciation for research and evidence is still quite a ways from producing much. Far too many still look to evidence-sketchy pap-dealers like Sir Ken Robinson for wisdom and direction over cognitive scientists like Dan Willingham, for example, and far too many evidence-weak practices and policies are still deeply grooved into our schools, wasting loads of kid potential and professional time and energy. Plus, when it comes to implementing sound practices, field bureaucrats—clearly unaware of just how little experience the field has with all this—are still awfully clumsy on just how to bring research and evidence bases effectively into the improvement process. Brookings fellow Mark Dynarski, for instance, after reviewing a stack of states' ESSA plans earlier this month—and the shiny new "evidence to strengthen investments" I mentioned above as a step forward—concluded, "Overall, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that plans mostly ignored research on what works and what does not to achieve particular outcomes."

Ouch, right?

Well, not for those of us who knew it would be this way. For if you know just how weak our evidence-informed pulse has been and for how long, you'll know it'll take a lot of hard exercise—plus a couple surgeries, maybe—before evidence-sound improvements truly stand a chance of coursing through our systems.

To reiterate, this post was intended to be an appreciation that we'd shown a pulse, not a proficiency. Call it a lame victory, but there's no way we can achieve proficiency without a pulse. It's the dreaded "incremental progress," but hey: I've lived, studied, and railed on the research-and-evidence-in-education issue for some time, so I'm just being real about it. The pulse itself is something to be thankful for, believe me.

Accordingly, I'm managing my expectations and looking on this time with a sense of bemusement—like watching a small puppy chasing its tail. We're so dumb about the reality that we're actually sort of adorable. (It's a novelty that will wear off quickly, however, when furniture starts getting knocked over.)

Keeping in mind that we're still in this early phase, I'll spend my remaining guest posts discussing some ways we can start getting the kinds of "exercise" we'll need to strengthen the faint—but definitely present—research-and-evidence pulse I'm so thankful for, both at levels of (1) schools and systems implementing research-to-practice improvement strategies and (2) individual education professionals becoming practical leaders through research. I hope you find the discussion useful, and I look forward to engaging.

Eric Kalenze

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