School & District Management

Researchers Seek Faster Answers to Innovation Questions

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 11, 2011 4 min read
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Education futurists predict massive shifts in the way children will learn as a result of new technologies and an increasingly global job market. Yet policymakers worry that education research is not moving fast enough to provide a foundation for truly effective innovations.

“We need to set up better facilities for doing [education research] pilots quickly and well,” said Bror Saxberg, Kaplan Inc.’s chief learning officer, at a Dec. 17 discussion on improving educational technology and innovation held at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Technology actually never solves a problem,” he continued. “Technology can take a really bad solution and make it work really quickly ... and it can take a really good solution and make it work incredibly efficiently and quickly as well. But notice you have to have the solution first.”

That’s why private and public education researchers have become increasingly interested in so-called “deep-dive, quick turnaround” education research, which aims to find rapid, concrete answers to specific questions from educators and policymakers.

John Q. Easton, the director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, said he plans to send someone from his staff to a training seminar in January on one of the models, developed by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement, or IHI.

The model provides short, intensive research into a specific problem—say, how to retain math teachers in a poor rural district—to get usable results in 90 days.

The research team spends the first 30 days reviewing existing research and interviewing experts and organizations familiar with the problem to develop theories on the problem, a proposed solution, and an annotated bibliography on available evidence. In the next 30 days, the team develops and tests its theories and refines best practices using a number of pilot sites. In the last 30 days, the team concludes its tests, producing a final report on the best solutions found, with information on how to implement them and areas for further research.

“The two biggest complaints about education research is it takes too long and it’s not relevant, and this is addressing both of those,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president and CEO of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, which represents research groups such as the federal regional education laboratories. The Knowledge Alliance co-sponsored the training on IHI’smodel with the Alpharetta, Ga.-based education firm AdvanceED.

During the Brookings discussion, Mr. Saxberg and Marilyn Reznick, the executive director for educational leadership at the Dallas-based AT&T Foundation, said the private sector already is expanding its use of quick, intensive studies, particularly with the growing availability of online data.

For example, the New York City-based Kaplan, which provides testing and other education services for schools, districts and parents, has an internal testing facility that provides quick-turnaround randomized controlled trials of online programs, according to Mr. Saxberg. The company recently conducted such a study of 900 students over four weeks to gauge the effectiveness of videos in a content program it was developing.

Funding Research

Yet many stakeholders argue this sort of research won’t catch on without more substantive public and private investment in research and development.

James H. Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement for the U.S. Department of Education, said at the Brookings event that while industries in an innovative framework usually spend 20 percent to 25 percent of their budgets on research and development, and mature industries spend 3 percent to 5 percent, the education field spends just one-tenth of one percent in that area.

“One of the telling aspects of this is education companies don’t even bother to report [research and development] in their accounting statements,” said Mr. Saxberg. “I mean, so many industries actually have an R&D line. Education companies don’t even think there’s a reason to talk about it.”

Stacey Childress, the deputy director for education at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the common-core academic standards that have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia may provide a common platform for education programs that could make small-scale research more broadly applicable. Virtual schools and interstate education programs have been limited by the existence of differing curriculum requirements from state to state and district to district, she said.

Paul E. Peterson, the director of the Harvard University program on education policy and governance, agreed.

“Schools are tiny markets historically,” he said. “We have to find a way of moving from multiple small markets to regional markets, or ideally a national market.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Researchers Seek Faster Answers to Innovation Questions

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