Advancing the Field of Education Research

Advancing the Field of Education Research

Anu Malipatil, Director of Education, Overdeck Family Foundation

Despite efforts to study the effectiveness of interventions over the last several decades, the education field has yet to boast a strong, clear evidence base about what works and what doesn’t, reliably and at scale. However, this is no reason to despair. Historically, sectors like the medical research field have faced such challenges – and have built strong evidence bases in relatively short order.  Ultimately, a renewed focus on shorter-cycle education research can strengthen the existing evidence base to better understand which measures matter and which interventions work in which contexts, reliably at scale.

Indeed, making strides toward these goals is a key reason why the Overdeck Family Foundation is co-sponsoring the 2016 Carnegie Foundation Summit. Ultimately, a renewed focus on improvement science will empower our teachers to apply more empirical, effective practices in the classroom.

Diagnosing the problem

Our field’s current ignorance hasn’t arisen from lack of effort. Numerous research-related entities engaged in this work (including the Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Research Council, and National Science Foundation), not to mention private philanthropies and research firms like RAND and MDRC, have deployed significant amounts of time and money toward finding strong evidence to determine what interventions truly work. So far, however, the results have been underwhelming.

Several factors have inhibited progress. Despite investments from the organizations noted above, the field suffers from low overall R&D spending. Public funding for education research at the national level amounts to less than 1% of the federal budget (less than 6% of which is allocated to education overall)—and even that paltry amount remains under pressure.

Additionally, the field suffers from a narrow definition of “research” that leads to excessively long feedback loops and impedes continuous improvements among stakeholders. Meanwhile, the field as a whole lacks consensus about what measures and metrics—not just of accountability, but also of learning itself—matter most. Finally, the Department of Education has attached insufficient value to serving as a central clearing agency for disseminating knowledge and proven best practices.

Taking a cue from medical research

Fortunately, the experience of the medical research community from the mid-20th century onward offers a potential roadmap for education researchers. While the fields have innumerable differences, they also share a number of parallels: both encompass many layers of human stakeholders, complicated relationships among the various stakeholders, and the complex challenges of behavioral change required to drive improvements. Yet, the medical field has advanced extremely rapidly in the last few decades, while the education field has languished, in comparison.

How did medical research make such great strides so quickly? In his book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon and author Dr. Atul Gawande deftly articulates and charts the medical field’s progression from a state of relative ignorance (little research and little application of that research), through what he calls “ineptitude” (applying newly acquired research base incorrectly), and finally towards “eptitude” (applying the knowledge we have consistently and correctly).

Gawande notes that as recently as the 1950s, for example, mistakes by doctors were quite frequent, and the field generally experienced high mortality rates among patients.  Back then, doctors had virtually no idea how to prevent or treat heart attacks; the field did not yet know many of the contributing factors, such as high blood pressure, and the first safe medication to treat hypertension didn’t come into common use until the 1960s. Today, we know of at least a dozen ways to reduce the likelihood of having a heart attack.

Over the last six decades, the arc of knowledge development in the medical field has transformed how its participants engage and interact. Most importantly, it has reduced mortality rates significantly.  Simply put, the field has moved from a state of ignorance, through the “ineptitude” stage, and now towards “eptitude.” Making this transition entailed several interrelated efforts, including:

  • Significant R&D investment: Research is expensive and can take a long time to bear fruit, but it is the foundation upon which all further advances rest. Empirical testing tells us what is true and what isn’t, and it paves the way for effective new practices that produce real results. Over the past 60 years, public (as well as private) spending on medical research has skyrocketed globally. For example, U.S. National Institute of Health appropriations have grown from roughly $53 million in 1950 to about $30 billion as of 2014.
  • Shortening the timeline of research application: Shorter research feedback loops are a key goal of improvement science. Once a problem—be it at the micro or systemic level—is identified, practitioners or researchers work to determine the right metrics through which to understand it, and then, using those metrics, they can develop solutions rapidly and encourage necessary behavioral shifts. Gawande heralds the use of the checklist as the field’s most recent advancement.
  • Adopting clear measures of success: By agreeing to common, rigorous standards of measurement, medical researchers can more clearly understand whether various interventions work; it’s simply good science. Additionally, researchers can mine numerous data sources, such as follow-up visits and insurance claims, to measure the efficacy of an intervention.
  • Setting up a knowledge clearinghouse: The American Medical Association has taken on the valuable role of a central convening agency that facilitates knowledge dissemination and best-practice sharing across the field.

A path forward for education research

Although significant differences exist between the medical and education research fields, we should seek to emulate some of the key practices highlighted above. The good news is that on some fronts, policy is moving in the right direction. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, prioritizes the value of research throughout the entire education bill. And in 2002, the Department of Education began building a rigorous, scientific evidence base aiming to inform researchers, educators, and policymakers. Known today as the What Works Clearinghouse, this online database now offers access to more than 700 publications and more than 10,500 reviewed studies. Unfortunately, however, educators, district leaders, and state agency leaders are often either unaware of it or unsure how to use the information it contains.

Clearly, if we want to progress toward “eptitude,” we must do more. The Overdeck Family Foundation has built its agenda and strategy around many of the practices listed above. We believe that the philanthropic sector can help encourage shorter research cycles with closed feedback loops and strengthen education research’s existing evidence base to help clarify which metrics are most important. Finally, we can advocate for broader and more effective knowledge dissemination. In doing so, we aim to help educators act with “eptitude” to the maximum extent possible.

The Overdeck Family Foundation is proud to be supporting the work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. As sponsors of this year’s Summit, we look forward to advocating for the advancement of improvement science and harnessing the power of innovation in education research. Many challenges lie ahead for the field, but we’re excited for the journey. We invite you to partner with us to amplify the work and drive the progress we hope to see in the decades to come.