Why Education Research Needs More Development

Education research needs to respond to the current needs of teachers and students.

An elementary school principal holds a meeting with teachers at a public charter school in New Orleans, May 2015. (Getty/Melanie Stetson Freeman)
An elementary school principal holds a meeting with teachers at a public charter school in New Orleans, May 2015. (Getty/Melanie Stetson Freeman)

Teachers in the United States are facing various challenges and changes in their schools, and they need research to drive the development of tools that can help them in the classroom. Current obstacles include the persistent achievement gaps among low-income students and students of color; changing demographics in the classroom; and the opportunities and potential drawbacks presented by educational technology, including the possibility that technology will contribute to growing achievement gaps. Unfortunately, education research has fallen short of helping practitioners in the field develop and implement the new technologies and strategies that are necessary for success.

This argument is not new. Education research has long been the subject of criticism, much of it justified. However, the real problem is that education research rarely is oriented toward education development. This must change in order for student outcomes to improve, particularly among students of color and students from low-income areas.

In other words, the problem with education research today is not so much one of quality as it is of coherence: To the detriment of teachers and students, education research rarely responds to current needs and fails to drive the development of hands-on technologies that help students.

In 1993, historian Carl Kaestle bemoaned the “awful reputation” of education research. A decade later, the former National Academy of Education President Ellen Condliffe Lagemann commented that education research has been “demeaned by scholars in other fields, ignored by practitioners, and alternatively spoofed and criticised by politicians, policy makers, and members of the public at large.”

Criticism of education research tends to center on scientifically weak or inconclusive results that are of dubious use to teachers and students. For example, one of the flagship journals of the American Educational Research Association recently published a paper that was a two-year case study of a single classroom, despite the fact that generalizing from a single classroom is widely considered to be deficient research practice.

It is not always the researcher’s fault

Researchers are not solely to blame, however. Outcomes are harder to define and measure in education than in health care, for example. Furthermore, the practices, techniques, and technologies studied by education researchers are not universal and often depend on teachers’ and students’ unique contexts.

Importantly, research and development—or theoretical analysis and practical application—tend to be tied more closely in other fields. The pathways for implementing new research insights and technologies and establishing best practices in health care, for example, are clear, well-trodden, and relatively fast. This is often not the case in education.

Without strong ties between research and development, education lacks the urgency found in other fields. Even when studies might be able to inform practice, their findings often appear too late. Researchers evaluating the implementation of a program need to observe its full effects over time, analyze the results, and submit their work to a journal and respond to peer reviews before publishing their findings.

By that time, however, the information can do little to affect the program’s implementation. For example, by the time studies credibly demonstrated that a New York City school district’s efforts to break up high schools into smaller schools had positive effects on students, the district had already abandoned the program and moved on to another strategy.

A ‘Moonshot for Kids’

The Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress recently announced a joint project, dubbed “Moonshot for Kids,” intended to “explore the rationale, potential, and possible design of a sizable new investment … in basic and applied research and development that leads to innovation on behalf of America’s children.”

The centerpiece of the project is a competition to identify the best new evidence-based education ideas that can produce marked improvements in student outcomes at scale and garner significant investment from both public and private sources. The competition, which will be open to submissions until August 2019, is an effort to help orient education research toward development and improved student outcomes.

Education research critics are also correct in noting that findings are often inconclusive and contradictory. Unlike scientific and medical studies, which tend to use careful controls to isolate the effects of an intervention, education studies often rely on small or convenience samples of students or schools that only partially explain the effects of a particular program or type of instruction.

As a result, subsequent studies that use different samples might come out with opposite results, as various studies of charter schools have shown. Of course, scientific studies sometimes can seem contradictory when new information becomes available, but they are usually robust enough to become part of the standard of care in hospitals or part of the curriculum in medical schools. In contrast, contradictory results are the norm in education research.

Without larger sample sizes and generalizable results, education research cannot advance development goals or reliably help teachers. Understandably, teachers regularly report that they are far more likely to receive information about new practices from their peers or teachers who present them at conferences than from researchers.

Research falls short of teachers’ needs

While the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine are considered required reading for physicians, few teachers or school leaders read education trade publications such as the Educational Researcher or the American Educational Research Journal. Some publications, notably Education Week, the Hechinger Report, and Chalkbeat, regularly report on education research, but it is not clear whether these efforts have widespread effects on educators’ practice.

The missing links between education research and education practice also mean that researchers often pursue lower-priority research issues. Because of the reward structures in higher education, articles published in prestigious journals are more likely to yield researchers tenure. These articles may advance the knowledge base of the academic community, but the topics do not always represent the most pressing concerns of teachers and school leaders who interact with children every day and need answers on how to better serve students in the immediate future. Additionally, researchers typically receive little financial reward for direct work with schools and teachers, no matter how valuable their insights might be to the practitioners.

The federal government can help improve education development

There are exceptions to the shortfalls of research, and the successes of targeted education development programs may provide a way forward. The federal government has historically provided substantial investments for education research that leads directly to development in the classroom. These efforts have produced important outcomes for students and teachers alike.

In 2002, for example, the Education Sciences Reform Act created the Institution of Education Sciences, which has established rigorous standards for evaluating programs; provides educators with a wealth of information on what works in the classroom; and helps bridge the gap between research and development. This approach has a been a tremendous success, allowing educators to learn what does and does not work in practice.

While such federal investments have not always produced results, they have had a clear impact on educational practice long after the funds were provided. Far more needs to be done to grow focused development efforts that target areas in which practical tools can be developed to improve outcomes for all students.

With stronger investment in research, development, and application, the United States can do more to provide students—and their teachers—with the proven tools that they so clearly need.

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Ulrich Boser

Former Senior Fellow