Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How to Better Connect Research With the People Who Use It

By Guest Blogger — November 20, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For a couple more weeks, Rick will be out discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he’s away, several of the contributors are stopping by and offering their reflections on what we’ve learned from the Bush-Obama era. This week, you’ll hear from Bob Pianta, dean at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, and Tara Hofkens, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. They will discuss the attempts by the Bush and Obama administrations to enhance educational research, what those efforts yielded, and what lessons we should learn.

In our analysis of the Bush-Obama years, we concluded that the unprecedented amount of money flowing to educational research yielded mixed results. We attributed the lack of traction in part to a top-down model of science and dissemination, concluding that the research enterprise needed to reorient around understanding and replicating the local conditions that foster students’ learning and educators’ success.

One obvious follow-up question to our chapter concerns the infrastructure required to support a reoriented form of science. Currently, education science capacity is centered primarily in academia and its adjacencies, with very little of the work ending up in the hands of educators in usable form. In response to this gap, there is growing interest in reorienting information flow in education research, with local practitioners, local conditions, and local phenomena in the driver’s seat.

Localized capacity for scientific inquiry is radically different from capacity centered in universities and labs, and requires an infrastructure to build and sustain networks and distributed capacity that does not exist. Yet precisely because education decisions, designs, and actions are so highly localized, one can see the appeal of research and development models designed around that reality.

What are the enablers of establishing authentic links between research and its use? One necessary (but not sufficient) condition will be to elevate and invest in measurement. We know this sounds boring and out of touch, but if we want the authors of a future analysis about education research to conclude something other than “mixed results,” then measuring well will be key.

In nearly every other industry or sector in which we have witnessed notable advances in knowledge, tools, and performance, measurement of the core phenomena in that sector has been fundamental to progress. Measurement creates the common lens required for focusing attention and resources, and the common language needed for transmitting information across stakeholders and activity (a core requirement for networks); it anchors evaluation of progress and change; and it contributes to building a taxonomy of relevant processes and their relationships, which is at the heart of building new knowledge and understanding. Measurement creates the basis for moving from arguments and policies based on rhetoric and opinion to advancements based on evidence.

In the many sectors in which science has a more direct role in driving progress (engineering, medicine, environmental change), the ability to generate and use knowledge to solve problems is directly tied to having the ability to measure the important processes.

Here’s a test—ask an education researcher, parent, student, teacher, school leader, school board member, and chair of the state assembly committee on education to identify the indicators they use to know if a student has mastered algebra or has the social skills to perform well on teams. I suspect the result will be a hodge-podge of definitions, metrics, and terms not held in common across the stakeholders, most lacking a precise, observable anchor. This is a problem.

Education is woefully underdeveloped in measuring the phenomena relevant to knowledge generation or practice and application. For example, although it is widely recognized that the success of education investment in student learning is tied to the instructional and social skills of teachers, there are virtually no standard measurements of instruction, much less of teachers’ social interactions with students.

Measures that do exist vary widely in their technical properties, ease of use, and adoption. The consequences of this include: little agreement on what makes teachers effective; principals don’t know what to look for when they enter a classroom; teacher preparation isn’t aligned to any industry standards for teacher performance; and most professional development wastes time and money.

As another example, there is general agreement that tests currently used to measure student learning (the goal of our education system) are poor approximations of the skills and knowledge that enable young adults’ success in life, work, and family. This is true despite 30 years of time, effort, and dollars in standards-based assessment and reform.

And to add a final take on the importance of measurement, consider that socioemotional learning (SEL) has emerged recently as a focus for helping solve the problems of educating children and youths—and yet ask any educator to define it, measure it, or identify whether their school is effective in promoting it, and you would soon conclude (wrongly) that SEL may be the next education fad.

We have not invested enough in measuring the things we care about. For this reason, we lack the very tools that can bind research with application; with development, implementation, and evaluation; and with networked stakeholders. Whether in a networked or top-down model, scientific progress takes time, and measurement is at the core; it forces definition, clarity, precision, focus, and informed debate. In a networked model of distributed research capacity, measurement will be essential because of the need for a common language and may be the only tool for ensuring the knowledge generated has any value beyond the hyper-local.

The Bush-Obama years greatly advanced the amount and quality of educational research, and still yielded mixed results and too little impact. A lot was invested in finding “what works,” and too little was invested in measuring the “what” and the “works” and most everything in between. Getting more precise, efficient, accurate, and grounded in measuring can be a big step toward progress.

Bob Pianta and Tara Hofkens

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org 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.


Events

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.
Sponsor
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.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
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.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

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 Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
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