Federal Education Officials Urge Scholars to Pursue ‘Action-oriented Research’

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – At a national conference on education research, federal officials on Tuesday challenged scholars to increase collaborations  with educators, community leaders, and state policymakers that bring research-based improvements to K-12 and postsecondary education.

Education research is undergoing a revolution, reflecting reform-driven change to include communities and educators as collaborators rather than merely as test subjects, said Dr. John Q. Easton, director of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), the U.S. Department of Education’s research unit.

“Effective education research must be guided by the voices and interests of practitioners and policymakers,” Easton said. “If researchers want their work to be relevant, we need to spend time in schools talking with administrators and teachers about the challenges they face. We need to reach out to policymakers. We need to collaborate with researchers outside their expertise.”

President Barack Obama’s education agenda emphasizes local problem solving, but without the data to evaluate interventions, progress can come to a standstill, Education Department officials have cautioned. With the nation declining in international education rankings, IES officials say they specifically want to help generate research that speaks to the public.

“Research is the compass for education reform, guiding us forward, showing us when we are heading in the right direction,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who opened the annual IES conference at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center.  

Typically, Easton said, education researchers have done work in their area of professional interest or based on a theory rather than on the needs of practitioners.

“We should be inviting practitioners and policymakers to the table from the beginning,” he said. “I’m going to implore you to rethink the traditional model that has governed educational research for far too long.”

Through its various grant programs, IES will begin to distribute awards to those researchers who produce work that is “useful and relevant,” stressing the accessibility of that knowledge.

IES is evaluating the impact of the federal stimulus funds for education, hoping to write digestible executive summaries of their reports for the masses. Additionally, they have launched the Reading for Understanding Network, a $100 million grant program that brings 130 U.S. researchers together with schools and teachers to increase reading comprehension.

The grants direct team leaders working on the project to meet quarterly to build knowledge while working closely in the field to assist with school improvement— which is a new collaboration model, Easton affirmed.

“Let’s look beyond what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “And look into why, how, where, for whom and under what conditions.”

The education research unit is also providing an additional $250 million in new grant dollars to support capacity-building grants to develop local and state longitudinal data systems, supplementing previous commitments.

Duncan said his proposed budget would increase IES research, development and dissemination funding by 30 percent, from $200 million to $260 million, and is working to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, admitting however, that some parts of the legislation are broken.

Hoping to salvage efforts to disaggregate data, Duncan said the new NCLB would replace punitive measures with reward mechanisms to encourage excellence and will strengthen standards and curriculum rather than dumbing them down.

“The school reform movement is as active as ever,” Duncan noted. “I’m happy to report education researchers are helping to drive that process.”

Researchers presenting at the IES conference echoed the IES’s reform-minded research approach with studies striking at some of education’s toughest dilemmas. In the session, entitled “Policies to Support the Success of Disadvantaged Students in Postsecondary Education”, a study was cited disclosing that nearly 40 percent of all first-year students at four-year institutions are enrolled in remediation courses. But rather than assess whether developmental education works in general, a researcher attributed the study’s findings to specific conditions such as background and ability.

“Remedial and developmental courses do not affect all types of students equally,” said study researcher Dr. Bridget Terry Long, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

In preliminary results, she said, remediation has a positive effect on females and older students, but males and low-income students did not experience the same results. Looking at developmental education programs in Tennessee, Long and her colleague Angela Boatman found students experience better outcomes in remedial writing courses than in math. The research is not yet conclusive enough to allow the researchers to pinpoint causes for the disparate outcomes.

Duncan touted “action-oriented research,” such as Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) work with Baltimore’s Talent Development High School, as an example of what education reform needs. Since the Center for Social Organization of Schools at JHU partnered with the public school, graduation rates have increased by almost 20 percent, according to their 2009 results brief.

“Researchers such as these prove it’s possible to move out of the ivory tower and into the schoolhouse,” Duncan concluded.