Monday, March 29, 2010

Research: From NCLB to Obama’s Blueprint for ESEA

We can finally put “Scientifically Based Research” to rest. The term that appeared more than 100 times in NCLB appears zero times in the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Reform, which is the document outlining its approach to the reauthorization of ESEA. The term was always an awkward neologism, coined presumably to avoid simply saying “scientific research.” It also allowed NCLB to contain an explicit definition to be enforced—a definition stipulating not just any scientific activities, but research aimed at coming to causal conclusions about the effectiveness of some product, policy, or laboratory procedure.

A side effect of the SBR focus has been the growth of a compliance mentality among both school systems and publishers. Schools needed some assurance that a product was backed by SBR before they would spend money, while textbooks were ranked in terms of the number of SBR-proven elements they contained.

Some have wondered if the scarcity of the word “research” in the new Blueprint might signal a retreat from scientific rigor and the use of research in educational decisions (see, for example, Debra Viadero’s blog). Although the approach is indeed different, the new focus makes a stronger case for research and extends its scope into decisions at all levels.

The Blueprint shifts the focus to effectiveness. The terms “effective” or “effectiveness” appear about 95 times in the document. “Evidence” appears 18 times. And the compliance mentality is specifically called out as something to eliminate.

“We will ask policymakers and educators at all levels to carefully analyze the impact of their policies, practices, and systems on student outcomes. ... And across programs, we will focus less on compliance and more on enabling effective local strategies to flourish.” (p. 35)

Instead of the stiff definition of SBR, we now have a call to “policymakers and educators at all levels to carefully analyze the impact of their policies, practices, and systems on student outcomes.” Thus we have a new definition for what’s expected: carefully analyzing impact. The call does not go out to researchers per se, but to policymakers and educators at all levels. This is not a directive from the federal government to comply with the conclusions of scientists funded to conduct SBR. Instead, scientific research is everybody’s business now.

Carefully analyzing the impact of practices on student outcomes is scientific research. For example, conducting research carefully requires making sure the right comparisons are made. A study that is biased by comparing two groups with very different motivations or resources is not a careful analysis of impact. A study that simply compares the averages of two groups without any statistical calculations can mistakenly identify a difference when there is none, or vice versa. A study that takes no measure of how schools or teachers used a new practice—or that uses tests of student outcomes that don’t measure what is important—can’t be considered a careful analysis of impact. Building the capacity to use adequate study design and statistical analysis will have to be on the agenda of the ESEA if the Blueprint is followed.

Far from reducing the role of research in the U.S. education system, the Blueprint for ESEA actually advocates a radical expansion. The word “research” is used only a few times, and “science” is used only in the context of STEM education. Nonetheless, the call for widespread careful analysis of the evidence of effective practices that impact student achievement broadens the scope of research, turning all policymakers and educators into practitioners of science. — DN