How Can School Systems Continue to Improve? IES to Find Out

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 03, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Institute of Education Sciences is getting a lot of support for its proposal to go beyond research on “what works” in education to explore the process of how schools in different contexts can continue to improve over time.

Back in October, I reported that the Education Department’s research arm was asking for input about a proposed new education research program covering “continuous improvement research in education.” It’s obvious IES really wants to make this new topic a centerpiece in the coming year. In addition to the standard requests for comment, IES Director John Q. Easton personally reached out to top researchers in the learning sciences field—Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Stephen Raudenbush, the chairman of the University of Chicago’s committee on education, Douglas Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University, and Bror Saxberg, the chief learning officer of Kaplan, Inc., among them—all of whom seemed enthusiastic about the new topic.

“If taken to the extreme, school improvement is reduced to regarding schools as purchasers of outside interventions validated by research done by an ‘FDA’ of education,” Raudenbush writes. “While I do believe we can and should learn an enormous amount from interventions ... This won’t produce the broad changes we need and could even distract. More systemic change is needed within schools and districts. Good information can play a central role.”

Likewise, writing on behalf of the Knowledge Alliance, which represents research organizations, President Michele McLaughlin says the focus on implementation research is needed because “even the most cutting-edge practices, built on high-quality research and proven through rigorous testing, will have little measurable impact on teaching and learning if not properly implemented.”

However, several researchers ask for more guidance on how to show evidence of improvement in a system when working outside the box of a tightly controlled experimental design. “In this [proposal], interventions, programs, practices, etc., will be developed, in vivo, in the existing system, with less control over fidelity,” says Deanne Crone, a co-principal investigator of the Middle School Intervention Project at the University of Oregon. “It is likely the impact on outcomes of interest will be muted under those circumstances.”

Saxberg, however, argues that IES’s proposed method for study, including frequent cycles of short-term testing and tweaking, will actually give much better insight into the effectiveness of programs and interventions in real classrooms. “One of the problems now is that it is quite hard to learn from either success or failure at scale in systems—even if a study of a major instructional change is well-enough designed to see if it is successful or not, that’s not enough,” he says. “We want to know WHY something well-founded worked—and especially, why something well-founded did NOT work, in order to carry on improving. Doing smaller changes, more quickly, allows a build-up of principles that work—and also a much clearer appreciation of interaction effects between elements....”

While commenters generally approve of the new research area, IES’s proposed funding was another matter. The almost-universal consensus, particularly among researchers already working with interagency partnerships, was that the proposed $1.5 million over four years for each grant was “far too low.” Patrice Iatarola, an associate professor of education policy and evaluation at Florida State University breaks it down: "$1.5 million over four years isn’t going to effectively cover cross-institutional partnerships, especially when overhead costs are taken into account—at a modest estimate of 40 percent, this leaves just $900,000 or $225,000 per year. How many investigators, research assistants, etc., will be covered by this? Perhaps not enough to really fund the ‘plan, do, study, act’ cycle that is the goal of the program.”

William Penuel, an educational psychology and learning sciences professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, goes even farther, calling for IES to support the new grants at $7 million to $15 million each, about the same level the research agency does for evaluations of signature policy initiatives such as Reading First.

But Jon Baron, president of the Washington-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, notes that it is possible to arrange low-cost experiments to evaluate district reforms. For example, he notes that under a separate IES grant, a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was able to evaluate the effectiveness of quarterly benchmark assessments in 59 districts for less than $100,000.

Many in the field ask that IES broaden the topics available for study, with many arguing in favor of including districts’ implementation of the Common Core State Standards. For example, Kenji Hakuta, a co-chair of Sanford University’s Understanding Language Steering Committee, wrote on behalf of the committee that efforts to support English-language learners during implementation of the common core would be a prime opportunity for districts and researchers to work together.

A detailed online analysis by Michael Goldstein, founder of the MATCH Charter School in Boston, praises IES for including a focus on “the single biggest issue facing high-poverty schools: Creating a safe, orderly and supporting learning climate for students....” However, he and other commenters warn that IES will have to pay careful attention to whether researchers and practitioners are really working together closely, rather than the “much more typical ... ‘fake’ collaboration where the researchers know what they want to do and just want a ‘practitioner sign-off.’”

Penuel agrees, recommending that IES require, not just letters of commitment from researchers, district leaders and other stakeholders, but evidence of governance processes for the collaboration to ensure all sides continue to work together throughout the project.

Increasing the speed at which studies turn around results could also help draw new researchers, notes Kaplan’s Saxberg; testing and tweaking small details multiple times a year might improve the “papers-per-year productivity” many young researchers must show, he writes.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP