School & District Management Opinion

Use It or Lose It

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 30, 2005 3 min read
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Research could help reshape schools, but it's usually misused or misunderstood.

In my idealistic days, I believed that education research would lead us to the promised land of successful schools and high student achievement. I founded Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, Education Week, because I wanted to provide educators with the information they need—especially research findings—to make good decisions.

The past 25 years have been a long journey through the looking glass of school reform, and my idealism is now a bit tattered. I no longer believe that education research will turn our schools around. And it’s not likely to help us to fix our ailing schools for very specific reasons.

First, research is not readily accessible—either physically or intellectually. The findings tend to be written for other researchers in academicspeak and appear in relatively obscure journals. Second, even if research findings were more accessible, they wouldn’t be widely read. Teachers, principals, superintendents, and politicians are generally not consumers of research.

Third, even if these folks were to read research studies, education practice wouldn’t change much. Researchers seem to delight in canceling each other out. When one study claims small classes boost student achievement, another insists they don’t. One finds social promotion harmful; another says retention hurts kids more. Money matters; no, it doesn’t. Vouchers work; no, they don’t. Confronted with such contradictory findings, policymakers and practitioners find it easy to continue with the status quo.

Fourth, research often goes unused because it can be expensive to apply. Good professional development may improve teaching, and small classes may boost student achievement, but both are terribly costly. Research findings are often controversial, and they mobilize vested interests. If a major study were to find that charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools by a country mile, the teachers’ unions would still fight charters to the death, using all of their influence in state legislatures to do so.

Fifth, even the most persuasive research findings, those embraced by policymakers, are often applied so ineptly that they’re ineffective—or worse, they wind up doing more harm than good. The definitive example in recent years has been then-Governor Gray Davis’ mandate to decrease class size in California. I’ve often tried to picture how the governor and his aides reached that decision. The only non-cynical explanation I can come up with is that they must have been smoking something. Was there nobody in the room who raised crucial questions, such as “Are there enough teachers or classrooms available?” or “Is this the best use of limited resources?”

Sixth, much education research is flawed because it relies so heavily on a flawed measure—standardized test scores. Test scores may be the only “objective” data available, but they’re not necessarily a reliable measure of student learning. Nor do they measure many of the traits we hope schooling will produce in kids—like good habits of mind and behavior. They don’t measure Howard Gardner’s other intelligences, like artistic talent, athletic prowess, or social skills. After kids leave formal schooling, they’ll be judged for the rest of their lives on the quality of their work and their personal and professional behavior. Test scores are a poor proxy for those qualities and for a wide range of other skills and abilities.

Finally, efforts to apply research findings are not likely to produce the desired outcomes because they’re not part of a systemic solution. Fixing one part of the complex education problem may accomplish little if other parts aren’t also fixed simultaneously. The education system is something like a combustion engine—unless all the important components are functioning properly, the engine won’t perform as it should.

Plenty of good, impressive research findings are available to those who make the decisions about public education. Indeed, if we wisely apply the knowledge we already have, we could develop the education system that our kids need and deserve. Unfortunately, we don’t.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as Use It or Lose It


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