06 July 2007

Great Dissertation Topic...Just Not Mine

Ryan over at I Thought a Think had a lovely post earlier in the week about how Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won't. His thinking emerged after reading an article by the same title over at Education Week. (As he points out, the whole thing is worth reading. Really. Click on over and have a look. I'll wait.) All of these ideas reflect something that I've been wondering myself recently. If we know what constitutes best practices, how come they are not often used within classrooms?

My head is full of research at the moment (more on that tomorrow) as I'm gearing up for my doctoral study/dissertation. I probably have 30 different---and recent---studies on student motivation and classroom structures which support the kind of engagement and learning goals teachers say they would love to see in their students...and yet I'm hard pressed to think of a single teacher I know who actually has this kind of environment in his or her classroom. This is just one example of many concerning the disparity between educational research and the real world of the classroom.

Why things are as they are isn't rocket science, at least by my estimation. Teachers are busy with the day-to-day work of the classroom. To do it well can be all-consuming (although to teach poorly doesn't require all that much effort). I have often said here that schools aren't making widgets---we're trying to turn out good human beings. This is no small task. Where is there time in a teacher's life to keep current?


We want doctors who practice medicine according to current standards...not those from 100 years ago. I like to take my car to a mechanic who knows about current models of cars...not just Model T's. Considering the precious cargo of our classrooms, it is not incumbent upon professional teachers to make an effort to learn about---and implement---the current set of best practices?

The EdWeek article does make a good point about why this doesn't happen: "Research is not readily accessible—either physically or intellectually—to the potential users...Even if research findings were widely available and written in clear prose..., the reports would not be widely read. Most teachers are not consumers of research, nor are most principals or superintendents. And even if educators and policymakers did read all the studies in a timely fashion, schools and education practice would not change very much, mainly because making significant changes means altering value structures, disrupting routines, and teaching old dogs new tricks." (They didn't mention having to fight The Union every step of the way, too.)

This is a fair summation of things. I can attest that reading a lot of the educational research is downright painful. Meanwhile, I can't admit to keeping up with everything happening in the great wide world of education. I'm fairly focused on a few areas. I also appreciate those who have distilled this work into reader-friendly books available from ASCD, Heinemann, Corwin, and other educational publishers. And yet, how many of those books have I read but not implemented the suggestions contained within them?

The author of the article also suggests that researchers could do more to make their information accessible. This is another good point, but it would still mean that teachers (and admins) would have to make the effort to do their part with the information.

Where I'm not ready to follow along with the EdWeek article is this statement: "Finally, efforts to apply research findings are not likely to produce the desired outcomes because the educational system, like a combustion engine, will not work efficiently if any of its critical parts are broken." This rubs me the wrong way. It feels like a "Why bother? You can't make a difference, anyway." sort of statement. Yes, it's true that public education is far from a well-oiled machine. We have big problems to address and none of them are simple. But from what I've read, teachers are the most influential factor in the classroom. Just because some parts of the system as a whole are dysfunctional doesn't mean that teachers can't make a difference within their classrooms each and every day.

Seems like a good EdD or PhD candidate out there could chew on these ideas in a lot of detail. Why such a disparity between theory and practice exists in education---and what can be done about it---would make for great research. Research I would certainly be interested in reading.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

SG, I think of your question in terms of "lags." Some ideas/practices eventually catch on, but there is a huge time lag before they become commonplace and expected by admin.

Some good ideas never make it into general practice.

If I was a Ph.D candidate, I'd be looking at quantifying the quality of leadership where best practices take root, from the supe to the principals to the classroom teachers. There must be some common denominators.

Like so many other phenomena I studied in sociology, when you get it analyzed you will, I believe, slap your forehead and go, "Damn, that's really obvious!"

I think it's right in front of us and I think it relates to exemplary leadership through the ranks.

Of course, I could be full of beans, too. ;-)

The Science Goddess said...

I think that leadership is key---and looking at the work of Douglas Reeves ("90/90/90" schools) and others---there does seem to be some characteristics that might be identified. The problem is that none of those guys provide much direction on how to replicate it.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

I'll ask around about the research models or ideas for one.

Reflecting on what I said above, I left something out. Sharp board members and good board leader are indispensable, because without a functional board, you can have long-term deadwood in the supe's office and yer screwed.

That opens up a whole other set of questions.

The Science Goddess said...

We have a very good school board here. They are highly visible at school events, very supportive of teachers, and a fun group to be with. For me, this has been a much welcome change from how school boards act in the southern US.

Clix said...

I think part of the reason for the lag is that most teachers realize they can't do it all. However, sometimes, when you try to implement PART of a good overall plan, it doesn't seem to have any effect. It's like...

Maybe it's like trying to make a PBJ without the bread. You've got the PB. You've got the J. And you can't make a PBJ! You can't even START to make a PBJ! The abbreviation of the name (PBJ sandwich) is terrifically misleading. You really need to START with the bread.

I really think getting started is the hardest part. There's just... there's SO MUCH information on Best Practices that it can be intimidating. And if you try out something that sounds good, and it doesn't seem to have ANY effect at all, it's so much easier to say "oh, that program did absolutely nothing" and chuck it, than to say "oh, what I did didn't work... what can I adjust to make it more effective?"

It is stinking HARD to come up with something manageable to start with that still has enough of an effect to get things rolling.

The Science Goddess said...

Excellent points!

I do hope that someone out there finds a way to distill things to create something manageable---something personalized, even---for the classroom teacher.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article! Thanks for the link to the EdWeek piece too.

My two cents on how we can make research come into the classroom:

i) Monitor Ourselves: I used to read 50 books a year. I now read 10. The difference? I make notes on what I read. In margins is ok, but in another notebook is best. Then I try and apply it in the classroom. This way I have made some progress, which is better than the close to no progress i made earlier.

ii) Get the Principal to champion a cause: Before education, i spent time in factories and businesses as a management consultant. I realised one thing about change. It happens ONLY because those at the top want it to. Get your Principals (maybe your Boards) to take one idea a term and champion it. Champion it is to discuss, implement, track, revisit and propel forward.

These two should do the trick!

Anonymous said...

Why don't we adopt "best practises"?

1) For years, we've gone to workshops and graduate courses that were foolish and useless--and sometimes contradictory. Dennis Fermoyle, of From the Trenches of Public Education, had a nice post about this a few months ago:


Most teachers simply have no confidence that education researchers know "what works."

2) I am sure there are honorable exceptions but much of what goes by the name of "education research" is crap. A teacher could comb through it, trying to find the gold in the dross, but as you say, we have limited time.

Now, it would be great if some smart, informed, trustworthy education researcher did that for us. But see 1).

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, research based education policy! Your post does raise some valuable questions, but it assumes that this unnamed research into best practices actually represents best practices. It has been my sad experience that much of what passes for ground breaking research into best education practices, much of what is touted as having the potential to change the face of education in one fell swoop is all too often merely repackaging the obvious with new (and extraordinarily dopey) terms and acronyms, or is simply silly navel gazing that could barely be implemented or effective in a perfect world, to say nothing of the real world of education.

Perhaps the largest impediment to significant, across the board reflection and "reform" (to whatever degree it might be needed in a given school--it isn't needed everywhere and in every school, indeed, probably not in most) is the overloaded nature of teacher schedules. As you correctly noted, teachers struggle just to be well prepared and on top of things from day to day as classes pass in a blur. No time is built into the schedule to allow for teachers to conduct research, to be innovative or to implement new ideas. Yet. many teachers do it, in smaller ways, all the time.

In my medium sized Texas high school, we'll be adding another class period to our day this coming year to meet new state graduation requirements. Without the new period, kids can't earn enough credits in four years to graduate. The practical result of this is that we must gain the time by giving kids less passing time between classes and we cut sufficient time out of all of the other periods to manufacture a new one. This, of course, means that my "conference period," is now down to the legal minimum, about 45 minutes.

Remember that teachers have little or no control over such issues in most school districts, thus, it's a little ironic for us to talk of making systemic change, isn't it?

The Science Goddess said...

I think that teachers are the perfect ones to be talking about making systemic change. I'd much rather be involved than having it done to me.

There's a great post over at LeaderTalk from a principal who is making a commitment to "walk the talk." As you point out, a lot of ed research is repackaged over time. Perhaps this does point to the idea that we know what works for kids...we're just not doing it.

Ivy Rutledge said...

Frankly, I think that the best researchers are the teachers themselves. By truly getting to know the children that they work with, they can assess what they need. It should not take third, fourth and fifth parties to get involved with that relationship between student and teacher. I think the system has made a complex mess out of something that used to be a natural and instinctive process.

Barry Garelick said...

Let us not forget that educational theory is taught in ed schools, who cherry pick the research results that support the current (100 year old) craze for constructivism. The "research" supporting the dubious practices for teaching math is based on flawed research conducted without benefit of control groups and which is designed to produce the conclusion du jour. Constance Kamii is one classic example. She has produced such wondrous research that shows that teaching place value in math to kids in lower grades is a waste of time because they simply will not grasp it. She also has "proved" that teaching children mathematical algorithms is harmful to their learning. When you point out (as I did in an ed school class in ed. psych that I took last semester) that the experiment didn't have controls, the response from the teacher is typically: "Yeah, but when you conduct experiments that in schools and you alter the curriculum for some but not for others, you can't subject kids to be Guinea pigs so experimentation is very limited." Nonsense. Cognitive scientists conduct experiments on learning with kids that are conducted with controls and don't disrupt the school curriculum. They run the experiments separately from what goes on in school.

The other canard is that "research shows" that while students subjected to the "discovery learning" method tend to do more poorly on assessments than those with direct instruction, they do better over the long term, when the knowledge "clicks in"--they retain more, while those receiving direct instruction forget what they've learned in six months. That was told to me by the professor of the class. What about "Project Follow-Through" which was conducted over a 20+ year period and showed direct instruction to be far superior to other techniques. Yeah yeah, I know. It was conducted by Doug Carnine and he had a conflict of interest. Oh puhleeze, what other myths do you think the public is going to swallow?

The Science Goddess said...

Ivy---Teachers do make good researchers in the sense of ethnographers. They can (and should) have a grasp of the culture of the classroom and how the pieces fit within. I also think that there is still a place for the outside parties in that we're still looking for ways to reach every kiddo that walks through our doors. You're right---it's a mess in some ways.

Barry---great points, too. I think either Ryan or the original article's author also pointed out the amount of bad research (e.g. not using controls) as well as conflicting information out there. I can't imagine any classroom teacher having time nor energy to sort through all of it and evaluate it on those merits. I think many are looking to Marzano and others to do that for them.