How Research Can Better Inform Practice
he role of research and evaluation in informing--and changing--education practice has itself become a policy issue.* Making research reliable, timely, and relevant to classroom teaching and learning has long been a concern of policy-makers, educators, and researchers alike. Public awareness of this need has grown as “high standards” are translated from a concept into high-visibility efforts to challenge students, teachers, parents, and communities--and hold all accountable for academic achievement.
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has sought to develop a moving picture of how well American schools and their students are faring.31 The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) compares the performance of today’s students with performance by their age peers in the past. Policy-makers, business leaders, and parents increasingly ask if American students are achieving academically as much as they can. International comparisons such as TIMSS provide a “world” benchmark for gauging achievements.32 The NSB’s own Science and Engineering Indicators--1998report summarizes, in addition to TIMSS and NAEP, robust time series since the 1970s on the performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds in mathematics, science, and other subjects.33
The need for research on practice relates, too, to differing expectations of stakeholders. What do they seek to learn and how best can data be used to refine system-, school-, and classroom-level practice? Some caution that education interventions alone will not suffice.34 Others seek education investments different in magnitude and kind.† A topic for continuing debate within professional communities, among parents, and by policymakers, for example, remains which tests should be used for gauging progress in teaching and learning--and for other purposes ofteacher and school accountability. A broader topic is ways and styles of learning in both formal and informal settings--how do children learn with understanding and refine the quality of their thinking?35 No research area than cognitive development is more multidisciplinary or longitudinal in approach.‡ Finally, studies of systemic change are needed: “. . . as efforts to reform the elementary and secondary system expand, new indicators of governance, partnerships, and alignment among various parts need to be developed, and research on the measurement of learning of science and mathematics must be extended into undergraduate education.” 36
Clearly, an agenda such as the one examined in this report is a cogent justification for research: what do we need to know and how best can we engender reliable and usable knowledge?** What organizational arrangement would attract the participation of the requisite research communities? How can an interagency portfolio of basic and applied research that goes beyond extant programs be devised?37
The National Science Board sees research as a necessary condition for improved student achievement in mathematics and science. Further, research is best supported at a national level and in a global context. While student achievement is the “bottom line” for parents, teachers, schools, communities, and policymakers, analysis based on national and international data sources can help to explain the conditions that affect performance.
In 1999, NCES and NSF will revisit the 4th grade population that performed so well on TIMSS in international competition. TIMSS-R will sample 8th graders who were in the 4th grade in 1995. Through an analysis of teacher and school questionnaires and the administration of a new achievement test linked to TIMSS, TIMSS-R will test the robustness of the TIMSS 4th grade results and allow examination of schooling in the middle grades. Comparative research is a prerequisite for suggesting appropriate responses by systems at any or all--State, district, school, subject, and classroom--levels.††
In 1997, both NSTC and PCAST recommended not only a larger investment, but also a larger-scale program of rigorous, systematic research on education to demonstrate the efficacy of transferring exemplary practices among our nation’s schools.‡‡ The National Science Board endorses research that can generalize to a diversity of classrooms, student populations, and school districts.***
An experimental program of research is particularly needed on how information and computer technologies influence the processes of teaching and learning of science and mathematics by children of various ages and in different classroom settings.††† Harnessing the creativity and power of innovative tools and pedagogy should be a priority.
Research on “what works” should thus inform those seeking a change in practice and learning outcomes. The dissemination and adaptation of research results, however, pose other problems. The knowledge base is thin; gaps abound and what is known from empirical study is not--even in this age of electronic communication and information retrieval--conveniently catalogued, updated, advertised, and/or accessible to the so-called end-users in schools. Research simply remains outside the purview of most classroom teachers.‡‡‡
Like other professionals, teachers need support networks in various forms--Internet bulletin boards, websites, in-person professional development experiences, university faculty mentors, etc.--to refine their knowledge and skills. Technical assistance by those who understand classroom settings and have the confidence of teachers is essential. In short, “getting the word out” only begins a process of using knowledge to inform ongoing teacher preparation and education practice.
Above all, we should remain mindful that “schools reflect society far more than they shape it, and that test scores tell us much more about what schools are facing than how they’re failing. Surely, we must challenge teachers and administrators to do their utmost, but not to work miracles. And not by themselves.”38