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Education Opinion

Why Education Research Isn’t Improving Education Much

By Guest Blogger — November 19, 2018 5 min read
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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.

The Bush-Obama years saw unprecedented investments in education research, mostly focused on solutions—generating and evaluating interventions that improve student performance. In fact, the structure through which the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) allocates resources to research is designed primarily to produce tools, practices, and policies that increase student performance on state assessments of academic achievement.

Funds are distributed to: scour databases to identify promising levers for improvement (Goal 1); develop and pilot methods and tools to increase that leverage (Goal 2); refine and test the impact of those tools (Goal 3); and implement and evaluate the proven-effective tools at scale (Goal 4). Side investments are made in building better measures (Goal 5).

This structure greatly enhanced the amount and scientific rigor of education research, a notable and positive accomplishment, even if it yielded mixed results in terms of impact on students or educators. The field now has available new curricula and professional development for teachers that have gone through reasonably rigorous vetting. And although the utility of research and research-supported tools and products will be improved by greater engagement between researchers and educators (see our forthcoming blogs later this week), we also believe it is a problem that the education research infrastructure, by design, is failing to advance the understanding of education itself; applications are limited by available knowledge.

In other fields the category of “basic science” refers to research into fundamental problems and processes that are the province of that field. In cardiology, basic science might focus on the cellular structure and properties of the veins and arteries connected to the heart, or differences in tissue across the ventricles; or it may focus on the physics and mechanics of the heart as a pump and the dynamics of blood flow; or it may study enervation of the heart and the rhythm of electrical impulses that support a well-regulated beat. Each of these areas is a field in its own right, often composed of sub-disciplines with many investigators working on clusters of related questions.

None of this work, by nature, involves testing drugs or experimenting with surgical techniques. Rather, the goal is to discover how the heart works—and with confidence knowing how the heart works, scientists can better understand the conditions that cause it to not work well, and in turn may develop the tools and interventions that treat these problems successfully.

Fundamental to the success of any treatment, in nearly all models of biomedical research (and in engineering), is a deep understanding of the fundamental processes and material. Gaining understanding is the province of basic science, and is the component of the educational research infrastructure that receives the least amount of attention and resources.

Does a parallel exist in education, where sufficient understanding of the fundamentals can undergird successful treatments? Early literacy is the best candidate. Decades of research on phonological processes, even including anatomy and physiology, informed an understanding of the role that these processes play in learning to read, curriculum and instruction in reading were reshaped, and the basic literacy skills of most children improved.

Was this enough to close the achievement gap for poor or nonwhite children? No, in large part because children’s ability to decode words is only a step on the path to being a proficient reader, and reading is itself only one domain of performance important for students’ success and well-being. This does not diminish basic science in early literacy, it only demonstrates how little we know in other areas.

There is a simple lesson here: Efforts to systematically advance students’ learning as a consequence of investments in research must place far greater attention on basic science—in learning and development and the processes through which outcomes in those areas are fostered or inhibited as a consequence of experiences in educational settings (such as classrooms, schools, and digital tools).

At present, no funding or competitive grant program in education supports basic science. Potentially relevant basic science is located mostly in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). NICHD funding is largely responsible for research in cognitive science that our colleague Dan Willingham has done such a commendable job applying to education. There are too few other examples, and even cognitive science has not had widespread impact on educational tools or teachers’ classroom practices.

Here are some questions the basic science of education needs to ask and answer in much greater detail: What factors regulate children’s attention in a classroom setting? What roles do the capabilities of peers play in advancing children’s cognitive capabilities? What factors promote or inhibit teachers’ responses to children’s perceived misbehavior? What role do social and emotional experiences and affective processes play in fostering learning? What are the components of school climate that matter the most for different forms of student success?

To draw on the cardiology analogy, these questions are at the level of “what factors are involved in blood flow from one chamber to another” and require much more detailed articulation and study. Subfields of education science need to evolve and further subdivide as knowledge becomes more detailed.

Education research is in a rush to identify solutions for today’s classrooms. This is fine, but only a sliver of what we need from the research and development enterprise. Systematic investment in the basic science of teaching and learning—in and out of classrooms—is foundational to getting traction on new solutions that yield better results. It is time for a more intentional effort to invest in and build the basic science of education at the same time we work toward solutions.

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.