Education Opinion

Research Says...

By David B. Cohen — July 17, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Research says…"

How often have you heard that phrase tossed about? As teachers, we certainly want good information about how to help our students and our profession, but too often, we struggle with the gap between what “research says” and what we experience in our own schools and classrooms.

Friday morning of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards 2009 Conference kicked off with a panel of National Board Certified Teachers discussing a report they helped write. Measuring What Matters was commissioned by NBPTS and published last year by the Center for Teaching Quality, (parent organization of Teacher Leaders Network). In their review of all the available research on NBPTS, these teacher authors found, (as did the National Research Council study published at about the same time) that National Board Certification does identify accomplished teaching.

However, of greater concern to this morning’s panelists is the fact that researchers tend to rely on inferior indicators of student learning. The panel was introduced and moderated by CTQ President Barnett Berry, and included NBCTs Nancy Flanagan, Andy Kuemmel, and Patrick Ledesma. Flanagan pointed out that part of the problem specific to this body of research is that investigators don’t always have a complete understanding of the certification process, which may compromise their interpretation of their findings. Then, standardized test scores are often treated as if they tell us more than they do, and debates ensue sometimes with total disregard for the actual design of the test and its intended purpose. All of those flaws led to the challenge from the panel and their co-authors, to measure what matters.

Audience member Christy Khan, an NBCT and doctoral student at the University of Kansas, has seen both sides of the research-practice divide. She described the problem as a gap between the quantitative terms preferred by researchers and the qualitative terms preferred by most teachers. The question posed by Khan was what specific measures of student learning could be used. The panel did not delve into details about the issue, but Ledesma was quite firm in reiterating a key point: the problem of finding quality data for broad research to measure real student learning is the researchers’ problem, not the teachers’. If they settle for limited and compromised data, they should be honest with themselves and others about those limitations.

This is a topic that I’ve written about in the past as well. When it comes to test score analysis, there is a tendency towards gross oversimplification that ignores the almost countless factors in student performance, some that can barely be identified, and most of which cannot be controlled for research purposes.

Another concern in the policy arena is whether or not NBCTs can improve high-needs schools. Reformers who suggest simply picking up NBCTs and dropping them in different schools miss the point, Nancy Flanagan noted. The problem of few NBCTs in the neediest schools is a reflection of the working conditions in those schools. Simply changing the teachers won’t solve the underlying problems, and I hope I’m correct in sensing a growing consensus around the idea of “growing your own” when it comes to developing a quality teaching force. Good teachers don’t just arrive as finished products to start work; they start off with a certain potential and either thrive or struggle in large part based on the circumstances in which they find themselves.

But thankfully, the overall tone of the morning was not about generating anger towards researchers and policymakers. Yes, the frustration is there, but the panelists made it a point to stress what teachers should do to improve the situation. Suggestions included having teachers speak directly to researchers, form partnerships, conduct action research, take on leadership positions throughout education, and even run for public office. Kuemmel summarized it this way: “Don’t wait for something to happen. You have to make it happen.”

The opinions expressed in Live From NBPTS 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.