Academic journal article Education Next

Making Evidence Locally: Rethinking Education Research under the Every Student Succeeds Act

Academic journal article Education Next

Making Evidence Locally: Rethinking Education Research under the Every Student Succeeds Act

Article excerpt

THE NEW FEDERAL EDUCATION LAW the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), envisions a powerful role for states in managing the evidence base behind school improvement efforts. Not only must they certify that interventions meet the "evidence-based" requirements spelled out in the law, they also must monitor and evaluate federally funded school-improvement efforts going forward. There's only one problem: states have never played such a role before.

In order to fulfill this obligation, states will need a scalable model of impact evaluation which could operate at the local level, where decisions are being made. States should adopt a simple goal: any major initiative involving more than 100 classrooms should be subject to a local pilot test before being rolled out. In other words, districts should be running their own small-scale impact studies, implementing interventions in a subset of their classrooms, establishing comparison groups, tracking and comparing results, and acting on the evidence. That's been the path to improvement in a variety of fields, from pharmaceuticals to retail sales. Given our incomplete understanding of the way students learn and teachers change their teaching, it is the only path to sustained improvement in U.S. education.

After a decade of investing in state and local data systems, many of the components of such a system--like longitudinal data on individual students and indicators matching students to teachers--have already been built. But some key pieces are still missing. We need a way to pool data among school districts, most of which are too small to assemble sufficient comparison groups on their own. We need a quicker and less expensive route to launch impact evaluation studies rather than the current costly and time-consuming practice of designing each new study from scratch. And local education agencies need an ongoing analytic partner that can standardize key parts of research analysis, such as how comparison groups are identified. Finally, local leaders need new venues for synthesizing results, comparing notes, and choosing which interventions to test next.

The Every Student Succeeds Act provides an opportunity to put these final pieces in place and spread such an approach nationally. In this essay, I describe how a state could use the authority and resources provided by ESSA to launch a system of "efficacy networks," or collections of local agencies committed to measuring the impact of the interventions they're using. An overlapping system of efficacy networks working with local agencies would create a mechanism for continuous testing and improvement in U.S. education. More than any single policy initiative or program, such a system would be a worthwhile legacy for any state leader.

An organizational mismatch

The United States spends about $620 billion per year on K-12 education nationwide. Only about $770 million of that goes to education research, through the federal Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the National Science Foundation (NSF)(see Figure 1). There is no estimate of state and local spending on education research because it is nearly nonexistent. Across the economy, our nation spends 2.8 percent of gross domestic product on research and development overall. If we invested a similar percentage of the K-12 education budget on research and development, we would be spending $17 billion per year rather than $770 million. We are clearly under-invested.

Still, education research has yielded some important successes in recent years. Perhaps the most valuable byproduct of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been the resurgence of research on the effects of teachers on student achievement, which has informed the redesign of teacher evaluation systems. Moreover, although many have lamented the shortage of interventions with positive results in the What Works Clearinghouse, even null results represent progress. For example, the failure to find positive student-achievement impacts in a series of IES-funded studies of professional development programs has produced a broader appreciation of the difficulty of adult behavior change and more healthy skepticism about the traditional approach to teacher training. …

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