Research into education has a long — and somewhat checkered history. Since its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, education research has been pilloried for a lack of a solid foundation, contradictory results of studies, and negligible positive impact on the practice of teaching and learning. Since No Child Left Behind (2001), there has been renewed effort to put education research to work in classrooms in order to improve stagnating — and, in some cases, declining — student performance, especially for students from low-income families and historically marginalized groups.
In this post, we examine what progress has been made, what still needs to be done, and why exactly evidence-based practices in education have been so hard to develop and implement.
Since at least the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, American education reformers have been trying to organize teaching and learning on more scientific grounds. Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, for example, founded the Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago, which attempted to implement more experiential learning informed by students’ individual backgrounds and interests.
Despite some early successes in experimenting with new approaches to education during this period, education research became increasingly isolated from practice, as Ellen Condliffe Lagemann outlines in her important study of the history of education research. According to Lagemann, as education research attempted to establish itself as an independent academic field, its connection to practice became more frayed.
A trend that remains familiar today emerged. Teachers became suspicious of “expertise” divorced from “deep knowledge of local conditions.” They expressed concern that the work was benefiting the researchers themselves more than students and educators. Over time, writes Lagemann, this “professionalization has been a barrier to the effective linking of knowledge and action in education.”
Since then, a number of attempts have been made at the federal level to strengthen the links between knowledge and action. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the National Science Foundation initiated a program to overhaul the science and mathematics curriculum to boost American scientific talent. In 1972, the National Institute of Education (NIE) was established to create a more certain evidence base for education policy and practice. It was underfunded and lacked strong backing, both politically and academically. It was subsequently replaced by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) in 1986. OERI, in turn, was replaced by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in 2002. Both have faced similar budget issues to NIE and struggled to make a positive impact.
The reforms under the George W. Bush administration, including both NCLB in 2001 and the Education Sciences Reform Act in 2002, specifically sought to advance evidence-based practices in education. In its strategic plan from 2002 the Department of Education (ED) wrote, “[T]he field of education operates largely on the basis of ideology and professional consensus. As such it is subject to fads and is incapable of the cumulative progress that follows from the application of the scientific method and from systematic collection and use of objective information in policy making. We will change education to make it an evidence-based field.”
Twenty years later, there have been some improvements, but the field of education remains behind others, like agriculture and energy, in basic practices on the best available research.
First, let’s review some successes. These include the What Works Clearinghouse, which is hosted by IES and provides educators and researchers with an accessible hub for research into the best-proven evidence-based practices in education. Through WWC, IES also reviews the quality and efficacy of existing research, and publishes practice guides and intervention reports highlighting promising programs, teaching methods, and policies.
The Department of Education also hosts the Education Innovation and Research program (EIR) which funds evidence-based practices in education. Successes include programming that has increased middle-school math success rates and delivered reading tutoring remotely to students during the COVID-19 pandemic. A related program at IES, called the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, offers rapid research and development support, and then follows up with rigorous evaluations on the effectiveness of the product. At the state level, many universities and educational organizations have established research-practice partnerships to facilitate context-sensitive study of the impact of particular interventions on particular student bodies.
But a number of obstacles remain that constrain the impact of R&D on K-12 education. Perhaps the most pressing problem is a neglect of the students and teachers that actually use new educational tools and programming. Because research tends to operate from the “outside-in,” as researchers identify problems and topics of concern from outside and then test their hypotheses inside the school system, teachers lack input on the topics that are studied. This tends to alienate them from the research process and reduces buy-in when it comes to implementing research based-practices in the classroom. Research projects tend to be driven by academic incentives rather than what is most needed in schools. And finally, a lack of intermediate resources that translate between research expertise and educator needs exacerbates these problems.
On the market side, dynamics tend to disincentivize careful research and high-risk, high-reward projects that could dramatically improve student outcomes. The marketplace favors established firms and disfavors careful research. Smaller firms with potentially breakthrough ideas tend to lack access to capital, as school districts, the primary customer for educational tools, tend to buy from bigger firms. Buying decisions are often made based on cost and convenience, rather than effectiveness for students. Strong research backing, while certainly considered, is often not the priority it should be.
Finally, a continued lack of federal spending in education research and development, especially when compared to R&D in other areas, slows down the development and adoption of new tools. IES lacks the budget to influence the education R&D ecosystem to the extent necessary.
Continued support for education R&D and investments at the federal, state, and local levels can help bring better tools and teaching methods to the market. Along with a strategy to positively influence the education R&D ecosystem, this investment can make a significance difference for future students and finally begin to fulfill the promise of evidence-based education.
– Ulrich Boser