NCEE Blog

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

Should ESSA Evidence Definitions and What Works Study Ratings be the Same? No, and Here's Why!

By Joy Lesnick, Acting Commissioner, NCEE

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education law, requires education leaders to take research evidence into account when choosing interventions or approaches. ESSA  defines three “tiers” of evidence—strong, moderate, and promising—based on the type and quality of study that was done and its findings.  

Are the ESSA definitions the same as those of Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse (WWC)?  Not exactly.  ESSA definitions and WWC standards are more like cousins than twins.

Like ESSA, the WWC has three ratings for individual studies – meets standards without reservations, meets standards with reservations, and does not meet standards. The WWC uses a second set of terms to summarize the results of all studies conducted on a particular intervention. The distinction between one study and many studies is important, as I will explain below.

You may be wondering: now that ESSA is the law of the land, should the WWC revise its standards and ratings to reflect the tiers and terminology described in ESSA?  Wouldn’t the benefit of making things nice and tidy between the two sets of definitions outweigh any drawbacks?

The short answer is no.

The most basic reason is that the WWC’s standards come from a decision-making process that is based in science and vetted through scholarly peer review, all protected by the independent, non-partisan status of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). This fact is central to the credibility of the WWC’s work.  We like to think of the WWC standards as an anchor representing the best knowledge in the field for determining whether a study has been designed and executed well, and how much confidence we should have in its findings.

WWC Standards Reflect the Most Current Scientific Knowledge – and are Always Evolving

WWC standards were developed by a national panel of research experts. After nearly two years of meetings, these experts came to a consensus about what a research study must demonstrate to give us confidence that an intervention caused the observed changes in student outcomes.

Since the first WWC standards were developed over a decade ago, there have been many methodological and conceptual advances in education research. The good news is that the WWC is designed to keep up with these changes in science. As science has evolved, the WWC standards have evolved, too.

One example is the WWC’s standards for reviewing regression discontinuity (RD) design studies.  The first version of RD standards was developed by a panel of experts in 2012.  Since then, the science about RD studies has made so much progress that the WWC recently convened another panel of experts to update the RD standards. The new RD standards are now on the WWC website to solicit scholarly comment.  

When it Comes to Evidence, More is Better

The evidence tiers in ESSA set a minimum bar, based on one study, to encourage states, districts, and schools to incorporate evidence in their decision making. This is a very important step in the right direction.  But a one-study minimum bar is not as comprehensive as the WWC’s approach.

In science, the collective body of knowledge on a topic is always better than the result of a single study or observation. This is why the primary function of the WWC is to conduct systematic reviews of all of the studies on a program, policy, practice, or approach (the results of which are published in Intervention Reports like the one pictured here).

The results of individual studies are important clues toward learning what works. But multiple studies, in different contexts, with different groups of teachers and students, in different states, and with different real-world implementation challenges tell us much more about how well a program, policy, practice or approach works. And that, really, is what we’re trying to find out.

An Improved WWC Search Tool and Ongoing Support for States and Districts

One area where WWC will make changes is in how users find studies that have certain characteristics described in ESSA’s evidence tiers.  For the past 16 months, the WWC team has been hard at work behind the scenes to develop, code, and user-test a dramatically improved Find What Works tool.  We expect to release this tool, along with other changes to the WWC website, in fall 2016. (More on that in another post, but the picture below offers a sneak preview!)

These changes should further increase the utility of the WWC website, which already gets more than 300,000 hits each month and offers products that are downloaded hundreds of thousands of times each year.

We know that providing information on a website about evidence from rigorous research is just a first step.  States and districts may need additional, customized support to incorporate evidence into their decision-making processes in ways that are much deeper than a cursory check-box approach.

To meet that need, other IES programs are ready to help. For example, IES supports 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) that provide states and districts with technical support for using, interpreting, and applying research. At least two researchers at every REL are certified as WWC reviewers (meaning they have in-depth knowledge of the WWC standards and how the standards are applied), and every REL has existing relationships with states and districts across the nation and outlying regions. Because the RELs are charged with meeting the needs of their regions, every chief state school officer (or designee) sits on a REL Governing Board, which determines the annual priorities of the REL in that area.

As states prioritize their needs and identify ways to incorporate evidence in their decisions according to the new law, the WWC database of reviewed studies will provide the information they need, and the RELs will be ready to help them use that information in meaningful ways.

 

 

 

Practice Guides: How to Use What Works in the Classroom

By Diana McCallum, NCEE

With new education research released every day, it can be difficult to know which teaching methods and classroom practices have been tested and shown to improve student outcomes. You want to know what really works and how to use evidence-based practices in your school or classroom.

What Works Clearinghouse practice guides help bridge the gap between research and practice by examining the findings from existing research studies and combining them with expert advice about applying these findings in the classroom. For each guide, a team of nationally-recognized practitioners and researchers work closely with the WWC to combine evidence from research with guidance from hands-on experience.

Practice guides offer specific recommendations that include a description of the supporting research, steps for carrying out the recommendation, and strategies you can use to overcome potential challenges. Many of the guides also feature supplementary materials, like videos and summaries, to help you quickly find what you need.

One example is our most recent practice guide, Teaching Strategies for Improving Algebra Knowledge in Middle and High School Students. Mastering algebra helps students move from arithmetic operations to understanding abstract concepts, and is for a key to success in future mathematics courses, including geometry and calculus. Teaching Strategies for Improving Algebra Knowledge in Middle and High School Students presents three evidence-based recommendations educators can use to help students develop a deeper understanding of algebra, promote process-oriented thinking, and encourage precise communication. These recommendations help address common challenges in algebra instruction and focus on:

  • Utilizing the structure of algebraic representations to make connections among problems, solution strategies, and representations; 
  • Incorporating solved problems into classroom instruction and activities to help students develop their algebraic reasoning skills; and
  • Comparing and selecting from alternative algebraic strategies to give students flexibility when solving problems. 

You can read the Practice Guide Summary for a quick overview of these recommendations or spend a few minutes watching videos in which Jon Star, of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, explain the recommendations.  

The Teaching Strategies for Improving Algebra Knowledge in Middle and High School Students is just one of 19 practice guides available on the What Works Clearinghouse website. Some of the others are:

  • Teaching Math to Young Children: Preschool and kindergarten teachers can get details on how to improve math lessons with this guide, including strategies to create a math-rich environment. You’ll find examples of classroom activities and games that can supplement lesson plans and provide opportunities for children to learn math.

You can find information and links to all 19 practice guides on our website. We also cover a variety of other math and literacy topics, as well as guides focused on dropout prevention, using data to monitor student progress and make decisions, and preparing students for college.

Visit whatworks.ed.gov to find the practice guide that’s right for you or to suggest a topic you’d like us to explore.

Dr. McCallum is an education research analyst on the What Works Clearinghouse team.

About the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC)

For more than a decade, the goal of the WWC has been to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions with the aim of improving student outcomes. Established by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the WWC strives to be a central and trusted source of scientific evidence on education programs, products, practices, and policies. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Regional Educational Laboratories: Connecting Research to Practice

By Joy Lesnick, Acting Commissioner, NCEE

Welcome to the NCEE Blog! 

Joy Lesnick

We look forward to using this space to provide information and insights about the work of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE). A part of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), NCEE’s primary goal is providing practitioners and policymakers with research-based information they can use to make informed decisions. 

We do this in a variety of ways, including large-scale evaluations of education programs and practices supported by federal funds; independent reviews and syntheses of research on what works in education; and a searchable database of research citations and articles (ERIC) and reference searches from National Library of Education. We will explore more of this work in future blogs, but in this post I’d like to talk about an important part of NCEE—the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs).

It’s a timely topic. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a solicitation for organizations seeking to become REL contractors beginning in 2017 (the five-year contracts for the current RELs will conclude at the end of 2016). The REL program is an important part of the IES infrastructure for bridging education research and practice. Through the RELs, IES seeks to ensure that research does not “sit on a shelf” but rather is broadly shared in ways that are relevant and engaging to policymakers and practitioners. The RELs also involve state and district staff in collaborative research projects focused on pressing problems of practice. An important aspect of the RELs’ work is supporting the use of research in education decision making – a charge that the Every Student Succeeds Act has made even more critical.

The RELs and their staff must be able to navigate comfortably between the two worlds of education research and education practice, and understand the norms and requirements of both.  As part of this navigating, RELs focus on: (1) balancing rigor and relevance; (2) differentiating support to stakeholders based on need; (3) providing information in the short term, and developing evidence over the long term; and (4) addressing local issues that can also benefit the nation.

While the RELs are guided by federal legislation, their work reflects – and responds to – the needs of their communities. Each REL has a governing board comprised of state and local education leaders that sets priorities for REL work. Also, nearly all REL work is conducted in collaboration with research alliances, which are ongoing partnerships in which researchers and regional stakeholders work together over time to use research to address an education problem.  

Since the current round of RELs were awarded in 2012, these labs and their partners have conducted meaningful research resulting in published reports and tools, held hundreds of online and in-person seminars and training events that have been attended by practitioners across the country, and produced videos of their work that you can find on the REL Playlist on the IES YouTube site. Currently, the RELs have more than 100 projects in progress. RELs do work in nearly every topic that is crucial to improving education—kindergarten readiness, parent engagement, discipline, STEM education, college and career readiness, teacher preparation and evaluation, and much more.

IES’s vision is that the 2017–2022 RELs will build on and extend the current priorities of high-quality research, genuine partnership, and effective communication, while also tackling high-leverage education problems.  High-leverage problems are those that: (1) if addressed could result in substantial improvements in education outcomes for many students or for key subgroups of students; (2) are priorities for regional policymakers, particularly at the state level; and (3) require research or research-related support to address well. Focusing on high-leverage problems increases the likelihood that REL support ultimately will contribute to improved student outcomes.

Visit the IES REL website to learn more about the 2012-2017 RELs and how you can connect with the REL that serves your region.  Visit the FedBizOpps website for information about the competition for the 2017-2022 RELs.