Academic journal article Education Next

Studying Teacher Moves

Academic journal article Education Next

Studying Teacher Moves

Article excerpt

In July 2011, Bill Gates told the Wall Street Journal, "I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts ... I'm enough of a scientist to want to say, 'What is it about a great teacher?'"

As a "practitioner" of sorts, I've wondered the same thing for 15 years. The K-12 school sector generates little empirical research of any sort. And of this small amount, most is targeted to policymakers and superintendents, and concerns such matters as the effects of class size reduction, charter school attendance, or a merit-pay program for teachers. Why is there virtually no empirical education research meant to be consumed by the nation's 3 million teachers, answering their questions?

Those 3 million teachers generate about 2 billion hour-long classes per year. We do not know empirically which "teacher moves," actions that are decided by individual teachers in their classrooms, are most effective at getting students to learn. Why doesn't this kind of research get done?

Mr. Gates has part of the answer. Money. For 2011, the Microsoft R&D budget is $9.6 billion, out of total revenue in the $60 billion range. The U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) represents only a fraction of total education research, but its budget gives some perspective: IES spends about $200 million on research compared to more than $600 billion of total K-12 spending. So, 15 percent to upgrade Microsoft, 0.03 percent to upgrade our nation's schools. And while Microsoft's research is targeted to the bottom line ($8.6 billion is on cloud computing, the profit center of the future), IES spends almost nothing examining the most important aspect of schools: the decisions and actions that individual teachers control or make.

One IES project is the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), established in 2002 to provide "a central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education." The WWC web site lists topic areas like beginning reading, adolescent literacy, high school math, and the like. For each topic, WWC researchers summarize and evaluate the rigor of published studies of products and interventions. One might find on the WWC site evidence on the relative effectiveness of middle-school math curricula or of strategies to encourage girls in science, for example. But there is almost nothing examining the thousands of moves teachers must decide on and execute every school day. Should I ask for raised hands, or cold-call? Should I give a warning or a detention? Do I require this student to attend my after school help session, or make it optional? Should I spend 10 minutes grading each five-paragraph essay, 20 minutes, or just not pay attention to time and work on each until it "feels" done?


And the WWC's few reviews of research on teacher moves aren't particularly helpful. A 63-page brief on the best teaching techniques identifies precisely two with "strong evidence": giving lots of quizzes and asking deep questions. An 87-page guide on reducing misbehavior has five areas of general advice that "research supports," but no concrete moves for teachers to implement. It reads, "[Teachers should] consider parents, school personnel, and behavioral experts as allies who can provide new insights, strategies, and support." What does not exist are experiments with results like this: "A randomized trial found that a home visit prior to the beginning of a school year, combined with phone calls to parents within 5 hours of an infraction, results in a 15 percent drop in the same misbehavior on the next day." If that existed, perhaps teachers would be more amenable to proposals like home visits.

By contrast, a fair number of medical journals get delivered to my house. They're for my wife, an oncologist. They're practical. In each issue, she learns something along these lines: "When a patient has this type of breast cancer, I currently do X. …

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