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Interview with Dr. Atkin: Why is Research Trumped by Politics?

Dr. J Myron Atkin is a professor (emeritus) of education at Stanford University. Eight years ago I was part of the NSF-funded CAPITAL Project (Classroom Assessment Project to Improve Teaching And Learning), a group of science teachers who worked with a team of researchers led by Atkin who were probing how teacher assessment practices would shift as we became aware of how much student learning could grow when we used powerful assessments. We learned about formative assessment, the value of specific teacher feedback, using rubrics and having students give feedback to one another. The researchers observed our teaching, but the heart of the work was reflections we did over the course of two years time. Atkin's belief was that assessment practices reflected deeply held values, and could only be shifted through processes that recognized this, and created space for teachers to wrestle with the values embedded in their customary practices as well as those in the new models. This thoughtful approach honors teachers as more than passive implementers of curriculum and assessment, but as thinking professionals. It also flows from a belief that daily classroom assessment, guided by the teacher, is among the most powerful levers we have for improving student understanding. This work resulted in the publication of a book, entitled Designing Everyday Assessment in the Science Classroom.

Dr. Atkin recently sent me a paper he published in the UK, entitled "What Role for the Humanities in Science Education Research?" (subscription required). In this article, he offers some insights into some issues that have cropped up recently around the nexus of education policy and research. I asked him some questions so he could share some of these thoughts with us.

Cody: Why is it that education research seems to be ignored or only cited when convenient in making education policy?

Atkin: Education policy, like all social policy, is undergirded by a set of values. Scientifically based educational research seldom addresses the often conflicting underlying values. It can't. Yes, education research can inform a decision about whether a particular method of teaching Newton's Laws seems more effective than another, but only if there is agreement about what should be taught about Newton's Laws. Teach students to state them and give examples? Teach them to state them and also understand the evidence that supports them? Understand the conception of motion that preceded Newton's Laws, better to understand their extraordinary contribution to human knowledge? Understand how Newton's Laws apply to novel situations? These kinds of questions about what should be included in the curriculum are best resolved by deliberations about what is of value educationally. And different people bring different values to the table. Scientific research alone is insufficient. What works is a different matter from what is of worth. Scientifically driven research can sometimes contribute to deciding the former. It is of little value with the latter.

Cody: What role does scientific evidence play in decisions about educational policy?

Atkin: It is often the case scientific research is cited to buttress a policy that has already been formulated on the basis of the educational values of the policy maker. When European high schools went comprehensive after World War II and moved away from different schools for students of different apparent academic ability, there was first a political decision to do so. The Swedes liked to consider themselves "scientific," so they commissioned an expensive and well-conducted study to collect data about schools that selected by ability and those that were "comprehensive." The study found that low-performing students did better in comprehensive schools. But the study was commissioned to legitimate a policy that already had been decided on the basis of a politically held position about the importance to Sweden's emerging view of itself as a more egalitarian society. Mixed-ability grouping at the secondary school level was a political priority. (The researchers did not examine the effects of mixed-ability grouping on high-performing students.)

We have come to the recognition that scientific research can be used to
legitimate policy -- despite the fact that different American think tanks predictably develop different recommendations about a given matter and despite the fact that they are staffed with people of equivalent academic credentials. The underlying values at each think tank make a difference in the recommendations in the report.

Cody: What sort of education research is of the most value in determining what course of action we should take?


Atkin: My own predilection is to focus more resources than at present to understanding what is happening in classrooms today. For example, if we're interested in improving English-language learning of six-year-olds whose first language is not English, let's identify classrooms where such learning seems to be occurring pretty well. Furthermore let's identify a range of classrooms where there appear to be differences in the classroom setting, the teacher's approach, the resources used, etc. -- yet all the approaches seem to be effective when knowledgeable people (other teachers, parents, school administrators, accreditation reports) make evaluations. Right now in this large country, many teachers are doing this work with six-year-olds relatively well -- but they're not all doing it the same way. The research community can help the profession and the public to understand variation in good practice, instead of looking for the one best way.

Teachers operate in different contexts, and they have their own strengths. Building on strength strikes me as a more effective method of improving education than solely trying to remedy weakness. The specific approaches to improving education stem from the teacher's professional and personal goals, as well as from circumstances in the class and community. If we're looking for metaphors, education improvement is more like evolution than engineering. Pushing the metaphor, each teacher works in a particular niche that has to be understood. There is enormous natural variation in American schools. Researchers would do well to focus on variation as well as similarity -- and at least do no harm.

Cody: What can be learned from more contextualized, small-scale studies?

Atkin: It's this point that I try to emphasize in my preceding comment. All kinds of challenges have been already addressed in the classrooms where a program seems to be going pretty well. Let's build on what we have, rather than implement new "solutions." Even in engineering, unanticipated side effects -- many of them counterproductive -- will arise. And if values shift, the side effects can begin to look like the main effects. We design heavy and large vehicles to go 90 miles per hour, but then people decide that fuel consumption or air pollution are more important than speed and cargo capacity. Companies with the best and brightest engineers go out of business. We design a program to teach reading to six-year-olds. Then we find out the decoding methods used are so aversive that the children taught by such methods do not read as much as students taught by less rigid methods.

Cody: What value is there in teacher action research?


Atkin: Teachers have enormous potential to improve their practice if they are encouraged to try -- and evaluate -- new approaches that grow from their own sense of how to improve their work. The effectiveness of teacher-conducted research on their own practices is enhanced when teachers work together in such an effort. How can we design assessments that more closely gauge what we really want to teach in seventh-grade science? What should we try? And what can we learn from each others' experience in the collaborative effort.

What do you think? Why is education research often ignored when policies are crafted? What kinds of research do you think are of greatest value?

Photo by J Myron Atkin.

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