IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Exploring the Growing Impact of Career Pathways

Career pathways programs for workforce development are spreading across the country at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. Based on a synthesis of studies examining career pathways programs that integrate postsecondary career-technical education (CTE), the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC)’s Designing and Delivering Career Pathways at Community Colleges practice guide presents five recommendations for implementing evidence-based practices:

Cover of advising practice guide
  1. Intentionally design and structure career pathways to enable students to further their education, secure a job, and advance in employment.
  2. Deliver contextualized or integrated basic skills instruction to accelerate students’ entry into and successful completion of career pathways.
  3. Offer flexible instructional delivery schedules and models to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways.
  4. Provide coordinated comprehensive student supports to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways.
  5. Develop and continuously leverage partnerships to prepare students and advance their labor market success.

Led by the WWC’s postsecondary contractor, Abt Associates, this practice guide was created by an expert panel of researchers and practitioners to provide examples of career pathways strategies and components and guidance to implement them; advise on strategies to overcome potential obstacles; and summarize evidence associated with rigorous research studies that met WWC standards.

As a long-time researcher of postsecondary CTE and many other important aspects of community college education, I welcome the opportunity to reflect on these five recommendations. I hope that my blog will help readers understand how this new practice guide fits into a larger landscape of research focusing on programs, policies, and practices aligned with the career pathways framework. Far from new, the notion of career pathways goes back several decades; thus, it is not surprising that we see an evolution in research to measure students’ education and employment outcomes. And still, there is a need for more rigorous studies of career pathways.

The Abt team located about 16,000 studies that were potentially relevant to the practice guide. Those studies used a wide variety of methods, data (quantitative and qualitative), and analysis procedures. Only 61 of them were eligible for review against the WWC standards, however; and only 21 of those met the WWC standards. Interestingly, most of those 21 studies focused on non-degree postsecondary credentials, rather than on college degrees, with policies and programs associated with workforce development and adult education well represented. Thus, lessons from the practice guide speak more directly to career pathways programs that culminate in credentials below the associate degree level than about those programs leading to the associate or baccalaureate degree level.

This dearth of rigorous career pathways research is problematic, as educational institutions of all types, including community colleges, seek to deliver positive, equitable outcomes to students during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Focus on Career Pathways

After examining the evidence from the studies that met the WWC standards, it was clear that the evidence converged around career pathways programs following requirements in the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). In alignment with the WIOA definition of career pathways, the set of studies in the practice guide examine a “combination of rigorous and high-quality education, training, and other services” that align with the skill needs of industries in the region or state and accelerate participants’ educational and career advancement, to the extent practicable.

As defined by WIOA, career pathways support learners in pursuing their education and career goals, lead to at least one postsecondary credential, and provide entry or advancement in a particular occupation or occupational cluster. Because a growing number of community colleges employ a career pathways approach, as advocated by the federal legislation, it made sense to focus the practice guide on rigorous results and evidence-based recommendations that may help to move career pathway design and implementation forward.

The Five Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Intentionally design and structure career pathways to enable students to further their education, secure a job, and advance in employment. Our panel advocated for the intentional design and structure of career pathways for good reason. Whereas all educational institutions enroll students in courses and programs, career pathways prioritize the student’s entire educational experience, from access and entry, to completion and credentialing, and on to employment and career advancement. This purposeful approach to supporting student attainment is theorized to lead to positive student outcomes.

Applying the meta-analysis process required by the WWC, we determined from the 21 studies whether career pathways were achieving this crucial goal. We found nine of the studies showed overall statistically significant, positive results on industry-recognized credential attainment. Of the 12 studies supporting this recommendation, most  measured non-degree credentials; only two measured degree attainment—an important point to recognize, because these are the studies that have been conducted thus far.

This very small number of rigorous studies measuring degree attainment leaves open the question of whether career pathways increase postsecondary degree attainment—specifically the predominant credential in the community college context, the associate degree—and calls for greater investment in research on student completion of associate degrees (as well as baccalaureate degrees, a growing phenomenon in the United States).

Recommendation 2. Deliver contextualized or integrated basic skills instruction to accelerate students’ entry into and successful completion of career pathways. Studies that met WWC standards showed a positive impact of career pathways on college credit accumulation and industry-recognized credential attainment. Only one study measured postsecondary degree attainment relative to contextualized and basic skills instruction and it reported statistically significant and negative results. However, descriptive and correlational studies suggest that contextualized and basic skills instruction contribute to positive educational outcomes for students enrolled in Adult Basic Education in addition to postsecondary CTE and workforce training.

That results of rigorous research complement descriptive studies, some of which provide rich details on program implementation, is information useful for scaling up community college career pathways. Having said this, we still need to know more about how contextualized, basic skills instruction—and other applied instructional interventions—affect the outcomes of students, especially those from racial minoritized groups, with low incomes, and who are the first generation to attend college, all purported to be well served by the career pathways approach.

Recommendation 3: Offer flexible instructional delivery schedules and models to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways. Studies supporting this recommendation focused on five education outcomes: industry-recognized credential attainment, academic performance, technical skill proficiency, credit accumulation, and postsecondary degree attainment. As seen with the previous two recommendations, results on industry-recognized credential attainment were statistically significant and positive. Results on academic performance, technical skill proficiency, and credit accumulation were indeterminate, meaning findings could be positive or negative but were not statistically significant.

What is important to reiterate here is that nearly all the studies that met the WWC standards focused on non-degree credentials, providing limited information about results on the education outcome of postsecondary degree attainment. To be clear, our panel is not saying career pathways should focus exclusively on non-degree credentials; rather that results on postsecondary degree attainment are not definitive. Even so, that findings linking flexible scheduling and non-degree credential attainment are positive is important to know now, when the country is dealing with the pandemic.

Community colleges nationwide are rethinking instructional delivery to better meet students’ dire health, family, and employment needs. Rigorous research on career pathways interventions, such as flexible delivery, is needed, particularly studies involving diverse student populations. In times of economic and social struggle, it is essential that community college career pathways produce the equitable outcomes they purport to provide.

Recommendation 4: Provide coordinated comprehensive student supports to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways. The rigorous studies meeting WWC standards and measuring outcomes relative to comprehensive student supports focused on the education outcome domain only. Similar to the previous recommendation on flexible scheduling, findings on industry-recognized credential attainment were statistically significant and positive. However, on supports, findings on credit accumulation were statistically significant and positive, reinforcing findings generated by other studies showing holistic supports improve student outcomes. For example, a meta-analysis of studies of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants that used rigorous evaluation designs reported favorable results for holistic supports in counseling and advising, case management, and various other support services and educational outcomes.

Consistent with the recommendations in this practice guide, a growing body of evidence favors integrating comprehensive student supports with career pathways. These supports are intended to meet the needs of the diverse population of students who attend community colleges; so, they should demonstrate equitable results on educational outcomes. More rigorous research is needed to measure whether and how career pathways provide access, opportunity, and outcomes for racially minoritized, low-income, and other underserved student groups. These studies should ascertain the impact of student supports on both education and employment outcomes, recognizing that students seek a high-quality credential and a good job that offers economic security and career mobility.

Recommendation 5: Develop and continuously leverage partnerships to prepare students and advance their labor market success. This recommendation specifically emphasizes labor market success, based on studies that examine labor market outcomes only. Supporting this recommendation were findings from studies of four labor market outcomes: short-term employment, short-term earnings, medium-term employment, and medium-term earnings. (The studies did not include long-term findings.)

Overall, statistically significant and positive outcomes were found in the meta-analysis for short-term employment, short-term earnings, and medium-term earnings. However, for medium-term employment, the meta-analysis results were indeterminate. To clarify, this does not mean employment-focused partnerships do not lead to labor market success; instead it points to a dearth of research that tracks students through training and into employment for long enough to measure long-term outcomes.

Even so, these initial findings from the meta-analysis are promising and suggest that developing and leveraging such partnerships may help move the needle on short- and medium-term employment outcomes. Longitudinal research that tracks students for periods sufficient to know whether long-term employment and earnings are affected should be a priority in the future.

Moving Forward

As I reflect on the research that I have conducted on career pathways over the years, I am gratified to see mounting evidence of positive student outcomes. As a first-generation college student myself, it has always made sense to me to demystify the college education process. Helping learners understand the entire educational journey, from start to finish, is bound to help them see how what they are learning may contribute to future education and career choices. I went to college not knowing what it would be like or whether I would be able to succeed, and I benefited from faculty and advisors who helped me see how my future could progress.

For other students like me who enter college without the benefit of family members sharing their stories of college-going, and for those who have to balance school with work and family care-taking responsibilities, it is important to know how a college education, including postsecondary CTE, can lead to positive educational and employment outcomes. Student groups underserved by postsecondary education deserve our most resolute and far-reaching efforts.

To this end, additional rigorous evidence on the impact of postsecondary CTE on college degree attainment could help to inform career pathways design, funding, and implementation. Also, as I reflected on the five recommendations, I was struck by the modest amount of research on medium-term labor market outcomes and the lack of any studies of long-term labor market outcomes. When the focus of career pathways is creating a path to living-wage employment and career advancement over the long term, it isn’t enough to know that students’ immediate employment outcomes were improved. When many students attending community colleges are already working, it isn’t even clear what immediate employment means.

If the outcome of interest for the majority of community college students who are adults and working is whether they get a better job and higher salary than they were getting pre-education, more nuanced measures and longer follow-up periods are needed than those provided by any of the research reviewed for this practice guide. It seems to me that finding more evidence of medium- and long-term outcomes could also provide more useful evidence of how career pathways work for diverse learner groups who are under-studied at the present time.

I was honored to help develop the practice guide with Hope Cotner, Grant Goold, Eric Heiser, Darlene Miller, and Michelle Van Noy. What an enormously gratifying experience it was to work with these professionals, the WWC team at Abt, and the Institute of Education Sciences staff. Working on this practice guide has left me feeling more optimistic about what we could learn with a more sizeable federal investment in research on postsecondary CTE in general, and on career pathways specifically. Rigorous evidence is needed to test models, explore interventions, and understand results for the plethora of learner groups who attend community colleges.

As the nation struggles to pull out of the pandemic that continues to rage in pockets across the country, it is the right time to invest in research that helps prepare students for good jobs that advance living-wage careers over a lifetime. A true commitment to equity in CTE programming is necessary for the nation, and now is the time to invest.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Debra D. Bragg, PhD, is president of Bragg & Associates, Inc., and the founder of research centers focusing on community college education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington. She spent the first 15 years of her career in academe studying postsecondary CTE for federally funded research centers, having devoted her entire research agenda to improving education- and employment-focused policies, programs, and practices to create more equitable outcomes for community college students. She served as an expert panelist for the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC)’s Designing and Delivering Career Pathways at Community Colleges practice guide.

 

 

Teachers Should Not Be Left Wondering What Works

The past two school years have posed many new and unexpected challenges for students and teachers. One thing that has not changed much is that educators continue to need quick access to evidence on strategies that can best support students. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, aims to meet these needs with ready-to-use practices supported by evidence. The WWC Practice Guides describe these practices and how to implement them, most recently in the new guide for assisting students struggling in mathematics. These Practice Guides contain the classroom strategies and tips that are most likely to help improve student outcomes.

More than two dozen free Practice Guides address challenges educators face in teaching math, reading, and writing; supporting positive student behavior; and preventing dropout. The recommendations in Practice Guides are based on evidence from well-designed and well-implemented studies, the experiences of practitioners, and the expert opinions of a panel of nationally recognized experts.

Ann Jolly, an instructional program manager at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Program for Exceptional Children, has used WWC Practice Guides for years. She describes her experiences using the WWC resources below. Her experiences may help teachers or instructional leaders understand how to better incorporate evidence-based practices into their own practice.


The COVID-19 pandemic has us all wondering where the time goes. We want to use the most promising evidence-based practices to support our students. However, as expressed by one teacher who understands how easy it is to forget about trying out something new in the face of day-to-day demands, “Yeah, you just get busy teaching…

Whether you are a new teacher trying to figure out how to balance teaching, lesson planning, grading, and other duties, or a veteran who is “busy teaching,” you should check out the WWC. The WWC, created by the U.S. Department of Education, is an easy-to-navigate website with valuable resources. I know that, as teachers, we are constantly seeking out resources that will enable us to provide the best instruction to our students. The WWC can help by searching for research, reviewing studies for quality, and summarizing findings, so that busy teachers like us can focus on our students! Here’s a quick look at some of the WWC resources I have used to make a difference in my school and district as an instructional leader collaborating with teachers and families.

When I needed help boosting reading comprehension among my special education students, I used the WWC Practice Guide Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade. This guide provided me with recommendations of practices and other relevant information that the WWC gathered to support classroom instruction. For example, I was able to quickly see that teaching students how to use reading comprehension strategies had the strongest evidence, so I knew to focus on that. The guide gave me easy-to-understand resources about how to bring the strategies into my classroom, plus videos and reference tools with examples. These were easy to digest and I was able to immediately implement the recommendations in my classroom.

When I needed strategies to support literacy at home and in school, I used the WWC Practice Guide Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade and its supplemental resources. Not only does the guide include a wealth of information for teachers, but companion documents include a summary of recommendations, a Professional Learning Communities Facilitator’s Guide, and Tips for Supporting Reading Skills at Home. I used the last tool to develop a presentation for parents. Parents took notes and asked questions as they made connections between the guide and the practices they could use at home with their children. Finding opportunities like this one to build relationships between teachers and parents may be even more important now, during a pandemic, than it was when I held this workshop. 

When my school was looking for strategies to improve student behavior, I facilitated a book club with school staff using the WWC Practice Guide Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. I began the club after noticing that other teachers were coming to me for suggestions about a common pattern of behaviors interfering with student learning.  This WWC guide offered several strategies to share. Although we started by discussing a specific behavioral issue and a recommended practice to address it, we eventually worked through the whole guide, chapter by chapter. The WWC Practice Guide gave us a free resource with powerful evidence-based strategies and practices for us to try. Teachers across grade levels and content areas actively collaborated through the book club and were able to build a common language and understanding about schoolwide practices. One of the great embedded features in WWC Practice Guides are the “Obstacles” or “Roadblocks.” This feature acknowledges perceived and actual barriers to implementing evidence-based practices and suggests solutions to overcome them!

The WWC has created a wide range of other Practice Guides, covering students from early childhood through high school graduation (and beyond). The most recent products include Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Intervention in the Elementary Grades, a Practice Guide for educators in grades K to 6 that provides ready-to-use strategies for assisting struggling students. Some of my colleagues have used the guides on Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively, Teaching Math to Young Children, and Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making. So many more Practice Guides are available!

I also encourage you to sign up now for the WWC News Flash and add the WWC to your social media network on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube to easily keep up with the most current information. Research evidence on “what works” in education is there just for you. When you have a question, rely on the WWC…and don’t be left wondering what works!

This blog was written by Ann C. Jolly, Instructional Program Manager, Programs for Exceptional Children at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with Data Rotz, Mathematica. 

“The How” of “What Works:” The Importance of Core Components in Education Research

Twenty-some odd years ago as a college junior, I screamed in horror watching a friend open a running dishwasher. She wanted to slip in a lightly used fork. I jumped to stop her, yelling “don’t open it, can’t you tell it’s full of water?” She paused briefly, turning to look at me with a “have you lost your mind” grimace, and yanked open the door.

Much to my surprise, nothing happened. A puff of steam. An errant drip, perhaps? But no cascade of soapy water. She slid the fork into the basket, closed the door, and hit a button. The machine started back up with a gurgle, and the kitchen floor was none the wetter.

Until that point in my life, I had no idea how a dishwasher worked. I had been around a dishwasher, but the house I lived in growing up didn’t have one. To me, washing the dishes meant filling the sink with soapy water, something akin to a washer in a laundry. I assumed dishwashers worked on the same principle, using gallons of water to slosh the dishes clean. Who knew?

Lest you think me completely inept, a counterpoint. My first car was a 1979 Ford Mustang. And I quickly learned how that very used car worked when the Mustang’s automatic choke conked out. As it happens, although a choke is necessary to start and run a gasoline engine, that it be “automatic” is not. My father Rube Goldberg-ed up a manual choke in about 15 minutes rather than paying to have it fixed.

My 14-year-old self learned how to tweak that choke “just so” so that I could get to school each morning. First, pull the choke all the way out to start the car, adjusting the fuel-air mixture ever so slightly. Then gingerly slide it back in, micron by micron, as the car warms up and you hit the road. A car doesn’t actually run on liquid gasoline, you see. Cars run on fuel vapor. And before the advent of fuel injection, fuel vapor was courtesy your carburetor and its choke. Not a soul alive who didn’t know how a manual choke worked could have started that car.

You would be forgiven if, by now, you were wondering where I am going with all of this and how it relates to the evaluation of education interventions. To that end, I offer three thoughts for your consideration:

  1. Knowing that something works is different from knowing how something works.

 

  1. Knowing how something works is necessary to put that something to its best use.

 

  1. Most education research ignores the how of interventions, dramatically diminishing the usefulness of research to practitioners.

My first argument—that there is a distinction between knowing what works and how something works—is straightforward. Since it began, the What Works Clearinghouse™ has focused on identifying “what works” for educators and other stakeholders, mounting a full-court press on behalf of internal validity. Taken together, Version 4.1 of the WWC Standards and Procedures Handbooks total some 192 pages. As a result, we have substantially greater confidence today than we did a decade ago that when an intervention developer or researcher reports that something worked for a particular group of students, we know that it actually did.

In contrast, WWC standards do not, and as far as I can tell have not ever, addressed the how of an intervention. By “the how” of an intervention, I’m referring to the parts of it that must be working, sometimes “just so,” if its efficacy claims are to be realized. For a dishwasher, it is something like: “a motor turns a wash arm, which sprays dishes with soapy water.” (It is not, as I had thought, “the dishwasher fills with soapy water that washes the mac and cheese down the drain.”) In the case of my Mustang, it was: “the choke controls the amount of air that mixes with fuel from the throttle, before heading to the cylinders.”

If you have been following the evolution of IES’ Standards for Excellence in Education Research, or SEER, and its principles, you recognize “the how” as core components. Most interventions consist of multiple core components that are—and perhaps must—be arrayed in a certain manner if the whole of the thing is to “work.” Depicted visually, core components and their relationships to one another and to the outcomes they are meant to affect form something between a logic model (often too simplistic) and a theory of change (often too complex).

(A word of caution: knowing how somethings works is also different from knowing why something works. I have been known to ask at work about “what’s in the arrows” that connect various boxes in a logic model. The why lives in those arrows. In the social sciences, those arrows are where theory resides.)  

My second argument is that knowing how something works matters, at least if you want to use it as effectively as possible. This isn’t quite as axiomatic as the distinction between “it works” and “how it works,” I realize.

This morning, when starting my car, I didn’t have to think about the complex series of events leading up to me pulling out of the driveway. Key turn, foot down, car go. But when the key turns and the car doesn’t go, then knowing something about how the parts of a car are meant to work together is very, very helpful. Conveniently, most things in our lives, if they work at all, simply do.  

Inconveniently, we don’t have that same confidence when it comes to things in education. There are currently 10,677 individual studies in the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) database. Of those, only about 11 percent meet the WWC’s internal validity standards. Among them, only 445 have at least one statistically significant positive finding. Because the WWC doesn’t consider results from studies that don’t have strong internal validity, it isn’t quite as simple as saying “only about 4 percent of things work in education.” Instead, we’re left with “89 percent of things aren’t tested rigorously enough to have confidence about whether they work, and when tested rigorously, only about 38 percent do.” Between the “file drawer” problem that plagues research generally and our own review of the results from IES efficacy trials, we have reason to believe the true efficacy rate of “what works” in education is much lower.

Many things cause an intervention to fail. Some interventions are simply wrong-headed. Some interventions do work, but for only some students. And other interventions would work, if only they were implemented well.

Knowing an intervention’s core components and the relationships among them would, I submit, be helpful in at least that third case. If you don’t know that a dishwasher’s wash arm spins, the large skillet on the bottom rack with its handle jutting to the sky might not strike you as the proximate cause of dirty glasses on the top rack. If you don’t know that a core component of multi-tiered systems of support is progress monitoring, you might not connect the dots between a decision to cut back on periodic student assessments and suboptimal student outcomes.

My third and final argument, that most education research ignores the how of interventions, is based in at least some empiricism. The argument itself is a bit of a journey. One that starts with a caveat, wends its way to dismay, and ends in disappointment.

Here’s the caveat: My take on the relative lack of how in most education research comes from my recent experience trying to surface “what works” in remote learning. This specific segment of education research may well be an outlier. But I somehow doubt it.

Why dismay? Well, as regular readers might recall, in late March I announced plans to support a rapid evidence synthesis on effective practices in remote learning. It seemed simple enough: crowd-source research relevant to the task, conduct WWC reviews of the highest-quality submissions, and then make those reviews available to meta-analysts and other researchers to surface generalizable principles that could be useful to educators and families.

My stated goal had been to release study reviews on June 1. That date has passed, and the focus of this post is not “New WWC Reviews of Remote Learning Released.” As such, you may have gathered something about my plan has gone awry. You would be right.

Simply, things are taking longer than hoped. It is not for lack of effort. Our teams identified more than 930 studies, screened more than 700 of those studies, and surfaced 250 randomized trials or quasi-experiments. We have prioritized 35 of this last group for review. (For those of you who are thinking some version of “wow, it seems like it might be a waste to not look at 96 percent of the studies that were originally located,” I have some thoughts about that. We’ll have to save that discussion, though, for another blog.)

Our best guess for when those reviews will be widely available is now August 15. Why things are taking as long as they are is, as they say, “complicated.” The June 1 date was unlikely from the start, dependent as it was upon a series of best-case situations in times that are anything but. And at least some of the delay is driven by our emphasis on rigor and steps we take to ensure the quality of our work, something we would not short-change in any event.  

Not giving in to my dismay, however, I dug in to the 930 studies in our remote learning database to see what I might be able to learn in the meantime. I found that 22 of those studies had already been reviewed by the WWC. “Good news,” I said to myself. “There are lessons to be learned among them, I’m sure.”

And indeed, there was a lesson to be learned—just not the one I was looking for. After reviewing the lot, there was virtually no actionable evidence to be found. That’s not entirely fair. One of the 22 records was a duplicate, two were not relevant, two were not locatable, and one was behind a paywall that even my federal government IP address couldn’t get behind. Because fifteen of the sixteen remaining studies reviewed name-brand products, there was one action I could take in most cases: buy the product the researcher had evaluated.

I went through each article, this time making an imperfect determination about whether the researcher described the intervention’s core components and, if so, arrayed them in a logic model. My codes for core components included one “yes,” two “bordering on yes,” six “yes-ish,” one “not really,” and six “no.” Not surprisingly, logic models were uncommon, with two studies earning a “yes” and two more tallied as “yes-ish.” (You can see now why I am not a qualitative researcher.)

In case there’s any doubt, herein lies my disappointment: if an educator had turned to one of these articles to eke out a tip or two about “what works” in remote learning, they would have been, on average, out of luck. If they did luck out and find an article that described the core components of the tested intervention, there was a vanishingly small chance there would be information on how to put those components together to form a whole. As for surfacing generalizable principles for educators and families across multiple studies? Not without some serious effort, I can assure you.

I have never been more convinced of the importance of core components being well-documented in education research than I am today. As they currently stand, the SEER principles for core components ask:

  • Did the researcher document the core components of an intervention, including its essential practices, structural elements, and the contexts in which it was implemented and tested?
  • Did the researcher offer a clear description of how the core components of an intervention are hypothesized to affect outcomes?
  • Did the researcher's analysis help us understand which components are most important in achieving impact?

More often than not, the singular answer to the questions above is a resounding “no.” That is to the detriment of consumers of research, no doubt. Educators, or even other researchers, cannot turn to the average journal article or research report and divine enough information about what was actually studied to draw lessons for classroom practice. (There are many reasons for this, of course. I welcome your thoughts on the matter.) More importantly, though, it is to the detriment of the supposed beneficiaries of research: our students. We must do better. If our work isn’t ultimately serving them, who is it serving, really?  

Matthew Soldner
Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
Agency Evaluation Officer, U.S. Department of Education

An Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19: What We’re Learning

Several weeks ago, I announced the What Works Clearinghouse’s™ first ever rapid evidence synthesis project: a quick look at “what works” in distance education. I asked families and educators to send us their questions about how to adapt to learning at home, from early childhood to adult basic education. I posed a different challenge to researchers and technologists, asking them to nominate high-quality studies of distance and on-line learning that could begin to answer those questions.

Between public nominations and our own databases, we’ve now surfaced more than 900 studies. I was happy to see the full-text of about 300 studies were already available in ERIC, our own bibliographic database—and that many submitters whose work isn’t yet found there pledged to submit to ERIC, making sure it will be freely available to the public in the future. I was a little less happy to learn that only a few dozen of those 900 had already been reviewed by the WWC. This could mean either that (1) there is not a lot of rigorous research on distance learning, or (2) rigorous research exists, but we are systematically missing it. The truth is probably “both-and,” not “either-or.” Rigorous research exists, but more is needed … and the WWC needs to be more planful in capturing it.

The next step for the WWC team is to screen nominated studies to see which are likely to meet our evidence standards. As I’ve said elsewhere, we’ll be lucky if a small fraction—maybe 50—do. Full WWC reviews of the most actionable studies among them will be posted to the WWC website by June 1st, and at that time it is my hope that meta-analysts and technical assistance providers from across the country pitch in to create the products teachers and families desperately need. (Are you a researcher or content producer who wants to join that effort? If so, email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.)

Whether this approach actually works is an open question. Will it reduce the time it takes to create products that are both useful and used? All told, our time on the effort will amount to about two months. I had begun this process hoping for something even quicker. My early thinking was that IES would only put out a call for studies, leaving study reviews and product development to individual research teams. My team was convinced, however, that the value of a full WWC review for studies outweighed the potential benefit of quicker products. They were, of course, correct: IES’ comparative advantage stems from our commitment to quality and rigor.

I am willing to stipulate that these are unusual times: the WWC’s evidence synthesis infrastructure hasn’t typically needed to turn on a dime, and I hope that continues to be the case. That said, there may be lessons to be learned from this moment, about both how the WWC does its own work and how it supports the work of the field. To that end, I’d offer a few thoughts.

The WWC could support partners in research and content creation who can act nimbly, maintaining pressure for rigorous work.

Educators have questions that span every facet of their work, every subject, and every age band. And there’s a lot of education research out there, from complex, multi-site RCTs to small, qualitative case studies. The WWC doesn’t have the capacity to either answer every question that deserves answering or synthesize every study we’re interested in synthesizing. (Not to mention the many types of studies we don’t have good methods for synthesizing today.)

This suggests to me there is a potential market for researchers and technical assistance providers who can quickly identify high-quality evidence, accurately synthesize it, and create educator-facing materials that can make a difference in classroom practice. Some folks have begun to fill the gap, including both familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones. Opportunities for collaboration abound, and partners like these can be sources of inspiration and innovation for one another and for the WWC. Where there are gaps in our understanding of how to do this work well that can be filled through systematic inquiry, IES can offer financial support via our Statistical and Research Methodology in Education grant program.   

The WWC could consider adding new products to its mix, including rigorous rapid evidence syntheses.

Anyone who has visited us at whatworks.ed.gov recently knows the WWC offers two types of syntheses: Intervention Reports and Practice Guides. Neither are meant to be quick-turnaround products.

As their name implies, Intervention Reports are systematic reviews of a single, typically brand-name, intervention. They are fairly short, no longer than 15 pages. And they don’t take too long to produce, since they’re focused on a single product. Despite having done nearly 600 of them, we often hear we haven’t reviewed the specific product a stakeholder reports needing information on. Similarly, we often hear from stakeholders that they aren’t in a position to buy a product. Instead, they’re looking for the “secret sauce” they could use in their state, district, building, or classroom.

Practice Guides are our effort to identify generalizable practices across programs and products that can make a difference in student outcomes. Educators download our most popular Guides tens of thousands of times a year, and they are easily the best thing we create. But it is fair to say they are labors of love. Each Guide is the product of the hard work of researchers, practitioners, and other subject matter experts over about 18 months.  

Something seems to be missing from our product mix. What could the WWC produce that is as useful as a Practice Guide but as lean as an Intervention Report? 

Our very wise colleagues at the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation have a model that is potentially promising: Rapid Evidence Assessments based on pre-existing meta-analyses. I am particularly excited about their work because—despite not coordinating our efforts—they are also focusing on Distance Learning and released a rapid assessment on the topic on April 22nd. There are plusses and minuses to their approach, and they do not share our requirement for rigorous peer review. But there is certainly something to be learned from how they do their work.

The WWC could expand its “what works” remit to include “what’s innovative,” adding forward-looking horizon scanning to here-and-now (and sometimes yesterday) meta-analysis.

Meta-analyses play a critical role in efforts to bring evidence to persistent problems of practice, helping to sort through multiple, sometimes conflicting studies to yield a robust estimate of whether an intervention works. The inputs to any meta-analysis are what is already known—or at least what has already been published—about programs, practices, and policies. They are therefore backward-looking by design. Given how slowly most things change in education, that is typically fine.

But what help is meta-analysis when a problem is novel, or when the best solution isn’t a well-studied intervention but instead a new innovation? In these cases, practitioners are craving evidence before it has been synthesized and, sometimes, before it has even been generated. Present experience demonstrates that any of us can be made to grasp for anything that even smacks of evidence, if the circumstances are precarious enough. The challenge to an organization like the WWC, which relies on traditional conceptions of rigorous evidence of efficacy and effectiveness, is a serious one.

How might the WWC become aware of potentially promising solutions to today’s problems before much if anything is known about their efficacy, and how might we surface those problems that are nascent today but could explode across the landscape tomorrow? 

One model I’m intensely interested in is the Health Care Horizon Scanning System at PCORI. In their words, it “provides a systematic process to identify healthcare interventions that have a high potential to alter the standard of care.” Adapted to the WWC use case, this sort of system would alert us to novel solutions: practices that merited monitoring and might cause us to build and/or share early evidence broadly to relevant stakeholders. This same approach could surface innovations designed to solve novel problems that weren’t already the subject of multiple research efforts and well-represented in the literature. We’d be ahead of—or at least tracking alongside—the curve, not behind.  

Wrapping Up

The WWC’s current Rapid Evidence Synthesis focused on distance learning is an experiment of sorts. It represents a new way of interacting with our key stakeholders, a new way to gather evidence, and a new way to see our reviews synthesized into products that can improve practice. To the extent that it has pushed us to try new models and has identified hundreds of “new” (or “new to us”) studies, it is already a success. Of course, we still hope for more.

As I hope you can see from this blog, it has also spurred us to consider other ways we can further strengthen an already strong program. I welcome your thoughts and feedback – just email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

Seeking Your Help in Learning More About What Works in Distance Education: A Rapid Evidence Synthesis

Note: NCEE will continue to accept study nominations after the April 3rd deadline, adding them on a regular basis to our growing bibliography found here. Studies received before the deadline will be considered for the June 1 data release. NCEE will use studies received after the deadline to inform our prioritization of studies for review. Awareness of these studies will also allow NCEE to consider them for future activities related to distance and/or online education and remote learning.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, we know that families and educators are scrambling for high-quality information about what works in distance education—a term we use here to include both online learning as well as opportunities for students to use technology or other resources to learn while not physically at school.

Leaders in the education technology ecosystem have already begun to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by creating websites like techforlearners.org, which as of today lists more than 400 online learning products, resources, and services. But too little information is widely available about what works in distance education to improve student outcomes.

If ever there is a time for citizen science, it is now. Starting today, the What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC) at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is announcing its first-ever cooperative rapid evidence synthesis.

Here is what we have in mind:

  • Between now and April 3rd, we are asking families and educators to share with us questions they have about effective distance education practices and products. We are particularly interested in questions about practices that seem especially relevant today, in which educators are called to adapt their instruction to online formats or send learning materials home to students, and families, not all of whom have internet access, seek to combine available technology with other resources to create a coherent learning experience for their students. Early education, elementary, postsecondary, and adult basic education practices and products are welcome. Submit all nominations to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov.
  • During that same time, we are asking that members of the public, including researchers and technologists, nominate any rigorous research they are aware of or have conducted that evaluates the effectiveness of specific distance education practices or products on student outcomes. As above,  education, elementary, postsecondary, and adult basic education practices and products are welcome.
    • Submit all nominations to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov. Nominations should include links to publicly available versions of studies wherever possible.
    • Study authors are strongly encouraged to nominate studies as described above and simultaneously submit them to ED’s online repository of education research, ERIC. Learn more about the ERIC submission process here.
    • We will post a link to a list of studies on this page and update it on a regular basis.
       
  • By June 1, certified WWC reviewers will have prioritized and screened as many nominated studies as resources allow. Based on the responses received from families, educators, researchers, and technologists, we may narrow the focus of our review; however, nominations will be posted to our website, even those we do not review. Reviews will be entered in the WWC’s Review of Individual Studies Database, which can be downloaded as a flat file.
     
  • After June 1, individual meta-analysts, research teams, or others can download screened studies from the WWC and begin their meta-analytic work. As researchers complete their syntheses, they should submit them through the ERIC online submission system and alert IES. Although we cannot review each analysis or endorse their findings, we will do our best to announce each new review via social media—amplifying your work to educators, families, and other interested stakeholders. Let me know at NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov if this part of the work is of interest to you or your colleagues.

Will you help, joining the WWC’s effort to generate high-quality information about what works in distance education? If so, submit your study today, let me know you or your team are interested in lending your meta-analytic skills to the effort, or just provide feedback on how to make this work more effectively. You can reach me directly at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

Matthew Soldner

Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and
Agency Evaluation Officer, U.S. Department of Education