‘Scientifically Based’ Giving Way to ‘Development,’ ‘Innovation’

By Debra Viadero — January 27, 2009 9 min read
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If “scientifically based evidence” was the rallying cry for education research over the past eight years, the watchwords for the field in the post-Bush era seem headed toward “development” and “innovation.”

A growing number of foundations, entrepreneurs, national education groups, and public officials have called in recent months for a stepped-up emphasis on generating findings, programs, and products that practitioners find useful and that will help revolutionize the way America does school.

If it takes hold, the new focus represents a break from the “scientifically based” research push, which called for investing more heavily, but not exclusively, in rigorous studies in which participants are randomly assigned to either control or experimental groups, with the aim of generating new, more credible, knowledge on “what works” to improve student achievement. A focus on development and innovation, in comparison, would mean often recycling existing knowledge, and, in some cases, old-fashioned practical know-how, into new, relevant uses for schools.

“We need to put the D back in R&D,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor, told a gathering of researchers in November, using a refrain heard with increasing frequency in policy circles.

Coming from Ms. Darling-Hammond, who led a review of federal education policy for President Barack Obama’s transition team, the words may have special significance.

The education plan that Mr. Obama proposed during his presidential campaign called, in fact, for doubling the federal government’s $321 million investment in educational research and development by the end of his first term. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, likewise, pledged at his Senate confirmation hearing to promote innovation in the field.

Moreover, the economic-stimulus bill unveiled this month by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives calls for setting aside $325 million for an innovation fund to help spread the ideas underlying the success of high-performing schools and districts.

In the private sector, the subject is also shaping up to be the new strategic focus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Stanford, Calif., and the San Francisco-based Stupski Foundation.

Meanwhile, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of its recently revamped plan for improving high schools, is supporting efforts to bring technological and scientific innovation to bear in creating “next generation” education models. (“Strategy Retooled at Gates,” Nov. 19, 2008.)

“I think there really is this renewed view of R&D as a catalyst for innovation,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, which represents many research groups that do development work.

Tug of War

But the focus could have a downside, too. Some experts and proponents of the push for more-rigorous scientific studies worry that the pendulum could swing too far toward developing practical uses for research knowledge and undo what they see as recent progress in spurring high-quality research.

Total R&D Spending

Analysts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science compare what the Bush administration proposed for research and development at key federal agencies for fi scal 2009.


SOURCE: AAAS, based on OMB R&D budget data and agency estimates for FY 2009. March ’08 Revised &copyright 2008 AAAS

“We’ve invested in innovation and development, and more money to do that on a larger scale would be a good thing,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a Bush appointee whose term as the director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences ended in November. “What would be a mistake,” Mr. Whitehurst continued, “is assigning investments in innovation that aren’t linked to an evaluation of their effectiveness. We have to have a mechanism for discovering whether they work, and for whom, and under what circumstances.”

The IES, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, helped lead the charge by President George W. Bush’s administration for scientifically based research.

Tension has long existed in education, as in other fields, between promoting experimental studies aimed at finding out whether something works and recycling knowledge into new applications that might—or might not—work. It’s exacerbated in education because of the comparatively small pot of money available for research and development.

Anthony S. Bryk, the new president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a research and policy center, estimates that less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the $500 billion a year spent nationally on education goes to research and development.

In medicine and engineering, by comparison, the percentages range from 5 percent to 15 percent, by Mr. Bryk’s estimates.

That sets up a perennial tug of war between research and development, a struggle that some people believe the so-called “D” side was losing over Mr. Bush’s two terms.

“Some of this is a reaction to where people perceived the Department of Education has been for the last eight years—this focus on rigor of research without sufficient attention to relevance,” said Mr. Kohlmoos. “Even though Whitehurst began to talk about relevance over the last two years, [the IES had] been typecast as being focused on research that didn’t have a tight connection to schools.”

Potential for Risk

But built-in barriers also hamper innovation in education, proponents of development and innovation say. While the incentives for schools to improve achievement are stronger than ever now, the rewards for bringing about those improvements in new, and perhaps risky, ways are few, according to many education observers.

And the financial incentives for businesses to invest more in research and development, as happens in fields such as medicine and technology, can be more limited in education.

“To have 50 different states each pursuing a distinct set of educational standards creates an environment in which there is an enormous amount of expense associated with making an innovation interoperable across all those sets of standards,” said Larry Berger, the founder and chief executive officer of Wireless Generation, a New York City-based educational technology company. “You find yourself having to do a different investment for Indiana than for Illinois.”

Likewise, universities reward their best thinkers more for generating new ideas than for putting existing knowledge to new and practical uses.

What’s needed, many development proponents agree, is a well-supported research enterprise more akin to the approaches used in engineering and systems design.

“You don’t just bring in an idea, see if it works, and then try something else next time,” said Helen Quinn, a Stanford University physics professor who advocated the approach for the National Academy of Education, an elite scholarly group based in Washington.

“It’s design, test, apply, review, redesign, test, and review again,” she said. “It’s more of a systems-thinking approach.”

Solving Real Problems

Researchers doing effective development work also have to collaborate closely with educators to build their programs around the problems of day-to-day schooling, rather than just pursue what interests the scholars, according to Mr. Bryk, who is developing a research program at the Carnegie Foundation that echoes his ideas on the subject.

That kind of collaboration is not completely new. The Strategic Education Research Partnership, a private, nonprofit effort spawned by the National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences, is working with educators in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities to develop what it calls a “use inspired” research program.

Where Mr. Bryk’s vision differs is that he is calling for involving entrepreneurs from the start and looking to anchor teaching innovations in technology.

While Mr. Bryk and others, such as the Stupski Foundation, also see philanthropy taking a lead—at least for now— in supporting such new development efforts, other proposals envision an expanded federal role.

For example, in his 2006 book Crash Course, Christopher Whittle, the founder and chairman of EdisonLearning Inc. of New York City, called for a dramatic expansion of the federal educational R&D enterprise, “with the emphasis on development.” A major task of that new venture, which Mr. Whittle said could cost up to $6 billion in the first five years, would be to incubate and bring to scale innovative whole-school designs.

Two Washington think tank writers, Sara Mead and Andrew J. Rotherham, made a case for an “office of educational entrepreneurship and innovation” in the Education Department in a widely circulated paper published last fall for the Brookings Institution. The $1 billion-a-year agency would seed educational innovations, help scale up those that have been shown to work, and “build a stronger culture around entrepreneurship and innovation,” the authors wrote.

“There are other areas the government funds that are in this in-between space between practice and research,” Ms. Mead, the director of the early-childhood initiative for the Washington-based New America Foundation, said in an interview. One example: the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which gave birth to the Internet and global positioning systems, or GPS, among other innovations. “But there isn’t really a structure in education to do that,” she added. The Education Department’s 7-year-old office of innovation and improvement can’t take on that role, according to Ms. Mead and Mr. Rotherham, because it runs too many small programs and has too little control over its budget.

Ripe Timing?

With a new presidential administration on board, and both the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 up for renewal, the timing may be right for revamping the federal R&D infrastructure, observers of the field say. But whether the federal government can afford to increase that spending at a time when the nation faces an economic crisis is an open question.

Some people see an opportunity in the economic-recovery plans now under consideration by Congress and the Obama administration.

“We’re into a stimulus mode now,” said Mr. Kohlmoos of the Knowledge Alliance. “There may be a short-term opportunity to push this thing forward,” he added.

Others, however, suggest that the issue of educational research and development may have to take a back seat to more-urgent national concerns.

Ultimately, proponents hope, renewed spending on the development part of R&D could lead to the kinds of “disruptive innovations” that Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen talks about in a widely discussed 2008 book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. By that term, he and his co-authors mean innovations that unexpectedly shake up the business of schooling just as Google advertising, Southwest Airlines’ discounted airfares, and the Sony transistor radio led to the reinvention of their respective industries. (“Online Education Cast as ‘Disruptive Innovation,’” May 7, 2008 )

Some skeptics question, though, whether the current push for more development is new.

“I’m 62 now,” said Alex Molnar, a professor of education policy at Arizona State University, in Tempe, “and when I began my career in the 1960s, there was an awful lot of talk about change and dissemination and diffusion, and those terms were used in the same way that terms like innovation and development get used now.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Scientifically Based’ Giving Way To ‘Development,’ ‘Innovation’


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