School & District Management

Carnegie Unveils Plans for ‘Problem-Based’ Research Networks

By Debra Viadero — June 04, 2009 3 min read
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Anthony J. Bryk, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has drawn a lot of attention in Washington policy circles over the past year with his call for a “design-educational engineering-development’” approach to research and development. The basic idea, one that a number of experts echo, is to design educational solutions, test them, tinker, test them again more widely and in different contexts, scale up, and continue to test. A good analogy might be the process that software engineers use to solve problems and develop new versions of their products. (To read more about the growing interest in this approach to research, see this EdWeek article I wrote in January. This article by my colleague,
Catherine Gewertz, describes some of the counterpoint to that movement.)

This idea differs from the approach to education research that’s been in vogue among policymakers over the past eight years or so. The push up until now has been on transforming education research into an “evidence-based” field much like medicine and it involved testing specific interventions through rigorous experiments designed to answer a single question: Does it work? If it didn’t—and most didn’t seem to— researchers went on to the next project or program.

But, beyond the fundamental engineering orientation, the details of Bryk’s ideas were sketchy. The foundation helped to fill in some of the blanks yesterday when it unveiled plans for the first of its projects to reflect the new approach, which it calls D-EE-D for short.

Along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie is investing $2.5 million to form a research network focused around a single educational problem. The problem the foundation wants to solve is how to improve the success rates of community college students in remedial, or developmental, math courses. Taken by 60 percent of community college students, the noncredit courses are designed for students whose academic skills are not up to par. Students have to take and pass them before they can enroll in the courses that count toward their degrees. The problem is that many students get stuck there, with some taking as many as four or five courses before giving up on college altogether.

For the alpha phase of the project, which will take place over the next year and a half, Carnegie has enlisted some big research guns from around the country to map out the terrain, develop some promising practices, and begin to test them in one or two community colleges. (To find out who’s involved, check out this press release posted online yesterday.)

The researchers will work from the beginning with designers, practitioners, and institutional leaders and the design teams will use technology developed through the open educational resources movement to share data among themselves, and eventually make their products available to the general public for free.

By the third year of the project, Mr. Bryk hopes to be testing and refining promising innovations in 20 to 30 community colleges in two states. The goal is to eventually extract theories from all the data on how the innovations work, when, and in what contexts, so that they can be reliably used, or adapted for use, in a varying array of settings.

Don’t rely on my description, though. Mr. Bryk outlines the basic principles for his approach in a new“Message from the President” on the foundation’s Web site.

Over time, Mr. Bryk said, the foundation hopes to seed other research networks focused around single, “high leverage” educational problems. I have a suggestion for one: How about designing a name that rolls off the tongue a little more smoothly than “design-educational engineering-development?”

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