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The Society for Research on Education Effectiveness: What Direction?

September 17, 2007 4 min read
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Today I received a notice from the Society for Research on Education Effectiveness (SREE). The Society was founded at the instigation of the Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences in 2005. Like many academic activities, his one has taken a long time to get organized. SREE’s first conference was held in 2006. The first issue of its Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (JREE) has yet to be published. According to the notice explained that the second conference will be held in March of 2008.

The mission of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) is to advance and disseminate research on the causal effects of education interventions, practices, programs, and policies. As support for researchers who are focused on questions related to educational effectiveness, the Society aims to: 1) increase the capacity to design and conduct investigations that have a strong base for causal inference, 2) bring together people investigating cause-and-effect relations in education, and 3) promote the understanding and use of scientific evidence to improve education decisions and outcomes.
SREE’s development may follow a path typical of any academic confab, but it was not formed to be just another group of academics. It was formed to meet an urgent and practical need of national importance. Like the What Works Clearinghouse, SREE’s purpose is directly related to the challenges of defining and operationalizing the concept of “scientifically based research” in No Child Left Behind.

As explained in the text of NCLB, SBR is not an abstract concept, but a regulatory standard for determining what state and local education agencies will be permitted to buy with federal funds. In the case of the Reading First fiasco, the Department of Education’s mismanagement of SBR’s interpretation affected $1 billion in the sale of elementary reading products, services and materials, favoring the major publishers and doing material damage to the revenues of several school improvement providers with a strong grounding in research..

As the school improvement market has developed, WWC is the de facto “decider” on the question of which products, services and programs pass the SBR test. Education Week reporter Deb Viadero’s lengthy February 1, 2006 article on SREE implies it is supposed to be the informal forum where experts advance the state of the art in evaluation for the purpose of informing practical SBR standards. To do this, it is not only important to advance evaluation methodology and discuss actual evaluations, but to consider the practical matter of value. The school improvement market is not an abstraction, it is about educators looking to purchase “results at a price” from school improvement providers, and about the costs of evaluation techniques relative to their statistical and educational significance.

What does this mean?

First and foremost, SREE’s board should consist not only of university professors, but senior federal, state and local agency staff responsible for program evaluation for the purpose of regulation, and program developers from the for- and nonprofit providers of what’s actually being offered in the market. After all, most educators don’t construct their own interventions, they buy them.

Second, the work of the Society and especially its conference should be based around questions, the resolution of which requires a three-way dialogue between academia, government and developers. This serves academia as much as anyone else, because after all, it would like to have a practical effect on society.

Third, in every effort, including its conference, SREE should be able to point out specific efforts and activities that draw the intelligent layperson, and especially educators to understand and use scientific evidence to improve education decisions and outcomes. If the layman can’t understand evaluation at some level, an advancing state of art will mean little to public education.

When I read the March conference materials, and while I understand SREE was formed to permit a greater professional focus on evaluation, I see a menu of sessions that could just as easily fit into the annual conference of the American Education Research Association.

But my critique goes more to a mismatch of what education needs and SREE’s proclaimed mission versus the Society’s actions. I see a board that’s made up entirely of academics. I see nothing that would encourage the participation of experts from government or the school improvement industry. And I see nothing designed to help a layman like me understand or use scientific evidence in education decision making.

I have no doubt the group will advance human knowledge, but I think it’s lost a sense of the broader policy reasons why it was formed, and why inclusion of buyers, developers and lay people is required for SREE to perform its mission.

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