NCEE Blog

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

Making the WWC Open to Everyone by Moving WWC Certification Online

In December 2016, the What Works Clearinghouse made a version of its online training publicly available through the WWC Website. This enabled everyone to be able to access the Version 3.0 Group Design Standards reviewer training to learn about the standards and methods that the WWC uses. While this was a great step to increase access to WWC resources, users still had to go through the 1 ½ day, in-person training to become a WWC certified reviewer.

To continue our efforts to promote access and transparency and make our resources available to everyone, the WWC has now moved all of its group design training to be online. Now everyone will have access to the same training and certification tests. This certification is available free of charge and is open to all users. It is our hope that this effort will increase the number of certified reviewers and help increase general awareness about the WWC.

Why did the WWC make these resources publicly available? As part of IES’s effort to increase access to high quality education research, we wanted to make it easier for researchers to use our standards. This meant opening up training opportunities and offering training online was a way to achieve this goal while using limited taxpayer resources most efficiently.

The online training consists of 9 modules. These videos feature an experienced WWC instructor and use the same materials that we used in our in-person courses, but adapted to Version 4.0 of the Group Design Standards. After completing the modules, users will have the opportunity to download a certificate of completion, take the online certification test, or go through the full certification exam.

Becoming a fully certified reviewer will require users to take a multiple choice online certification test and then use the new Online SRG application to conduct a full review using the same tools that the WWC team uses. The WWC team will then grade your exam to make sure you fully understand how to apply the Standards before certifying you to review for the Clearinghouse.

Not interested in becoming a certified reviewer? Online training still has several benefits. Educators can embed our videos in their course websites and use our training materials in their curricula. Researchers can use our Online SRG tool with their publications to determine a preliminary rating and understand what factors could cause their study to get the highest rating. They could also use the tool to use when conducting a systematic evidence review.

Have ideas for new resources we could make available? Email your ideas and suggestions to Contact.WWC@ed.gov!

by Erin Pollard, WWC Project Officer

 

Improving the WWC Standards and Procedures

By Chris Weiss and Jon Jacobson

For the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), standards and procedures are at the foundation of the WWC’s work to provide scientific evidence for what works in education. They guide how studies are selected for review, what elements of an effectiveness study are examined, and how systematic reviews are conducted. The WWC’s standards and procedures are designed to be rigorous and reflective of best practices in research and statistics, while also being aspirational to help point the field of education effectiveness research toward an ever-higher quality of study design and analysis.

To keep pace with new advances in methodological research and provide necessary clarifications for both education researchers and decision makers, the WWC regularly updates its procedures and standards and shares them with the field. We recently released Version 4.0 of the Procedures and Standards Handbooks, which describes the five steps of the WWC’s systematic review process.

For this newest version, we have divided information into two separate documents (see graphic below).  The Procedures Handbook describes how the WWC decides which studies to review and how it reports on study findings. The Standards Handbook describes how the WWC rates the evidence from studies.

The new Standards Handbook includes several improvements, including updated and overhauled standards for cluster-level assignment of students; a new approach for reviewing studies that have some missing baseline or outcome data; and revised standards for regression discontinuity designs. The new Procedures Handbook includes a revised discussion of how the WWC defines a study.  All of the changes are summarized on the WWC website (PDF).

Making the Revisions

These updates were developed in a careful, collaborative manner that included experts in the field, external peer review, and input from the public.

Staff from the Institute of Education Sciences oversaw the process with the WWC’s Statistical, Technical, and Analysis Team (STAT), a panel of highly experienced researchers who revise and develop the WWC standards. In addition, the WWC sought and received input from experts on specific research topics, including regression discontinuity designs, cluster-level assignment, missing data, and complier average causal effects. Based on this information, drafts of the standards and procedures handbooks were developed.

External peer reviewers then provided input that led to additional revisions and, in the summer, the WWC posted drafts and gathered feedback from the public. The WWC’s response to some of the comments is available on its website (PDF).   

Version 4.0 of the Handbooks was released on October 26. This update focused on a few key areas of the standards, and updated and clarified some procedures. However, the WWC strives for continuous improvement and as the field of education research continues to evolve and improve, we expect that there will be new techniques and new tools incorporated into future versions the Handbooks.

Your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions are welcome and can be submitted through the WWC help desk.

The What Works Clearinghouse Goes to College

By Vanessa Anderson, Research Scientist, NCEE

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) was founded in 2002 and, in its first decade, focused mainly on reviewing studies of programs, policies, products and practices—or interventions—for improving student outcomes in pre-K, elementary and secondary schools. But in 2012, the WWC broadened its focus and has been using rigorous standards to review studies of interventions designed to increase the success of students in postsecondary education.

This week, the WWC launches a new topic—Supporting Postsecondary Success—and it is a good time to look at the work we’re doing, and will do, in the postsecondary area. 

The WWC postsecondary topic area includes reviews of studies on a wide range of interventions, including learning communities, summer bridge programs, multi-faceted support programs, academic mentoring, and interventions that aim to reduce performance anxiety. As of today, 294 postsecondary studies have been reviewed by the WWC. Those reviews are summarized in six Intervention Reports, 25 Single Study Reviews, and four Quick Reviews. And there’s much more in the works!  For instance, a WWC Educator’s Practice Guide that includes strategies for supporting students in developmental education is planned for publication later this year. (Learn more about Practice Guides)

Identifying Studies for Review

In the postsecondary topic area, there are currently three main ways that studies are identified by the WWC for review.

The first is studies that are reviewed for WWC Intervention Reports. All WWC Intervention Reports use a systematic review process to summarize evidence from all available studies on a given intervention. The WWC conducts a broad search for all publicly available studies of interventions that are related to the topic. This process often identifies hundreds of studies for review. The effectiveness studies are then reviewed against WWC standards. Only the highest quality studies are summarized in an Intervention Report.

We released two new intervention reports this week as part of our new Supporting Postsecondary Success topic. You can view the new Intervention Reports on Summer Bridge programs and first-year experience courses on the WWC website.

The second way that studies are reviewed by the WWC is through Quick Reviews, which are performed on studies that have received a great deal of media attention. In these reports, the WWC provides a brief description of the study, the author-reported results, and a study rating. We like to think of Quick Reviews as a way to help people decide whether to fully believe the results of a study, based on the research design and how the study was conducted. For example, we released a quick review earlier this month that focused on a study of computer usage and student outcomes for a class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Finally, the WWC reviews postsecondary studies submitted as supporting evidence for discretionary grant competitions funded by the U.S. Department of Education, such as the Strengthening Institutions Program, First in the World and TRIO Student Support Services. These grant competitions require applicants to submit studies as evidence of the effectiveness of the interventions they propose to implement. The WWC reviews these studies and includes the results of those reviews in our database.

If you want to see all the studies on postsecondary interventions that have been reviewed by WWC you can check out—and download—the Reviewed Studies Database. In the “Topic Areas” dropdown menu, just select “Postsecondary,” and then easily customize the search by rating, publication type, and/or reasons for the review (such as a grant competition).  

For more information, visit the WWC postsecondary topic area on the website. To stay up-to-date on WWC news, information, and products, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and sign up for the WWC newsflash!

Five Reasons to Visit the What Works Clearinghouse

By Diana McCallum, Education Research Analyst, What Works Clearinghouse

It’s been more than a decade since the first What Works Clearinghouse reports were released and we have a wealth of information and resources that can help educators and leaders make evidence-based decisions about teaching and learning. Since 2005, the WWC has assessed more than 11,500 education studies using rigorous standards and has published hundreds of resources and guides across many content areas. (View the full version of the graphic to the right.) 

The WWC website has already received more than 1.7 million page views this year, but if you haven’t visited whatworks.ed.gov lately, here are five reasons you might want to click over:

1) We are always adding new and updated reviews. Multiple claims about programs that work can be overwhelming and people often lack time to sift through piles of research. That’s where the WWC comes in. We provide an independent, objective assessment of education research. For example, we have intervention reports that provide summaries of all of the existing research on a given program or practice that educators can use to help inform their choices.  In addition, when a new education study grabs headlines, the WWC develops a quick review that provides our take on the evidence presented to let you know whether the study is credible. In 2015, we added 43 publications to WWC and we’re adding more every month this year.

2) We’ve expanded our reach into the Postsecondary area. In late 2012, the WWC expanded its focus to include reviews of studies within the Postsecondary area to capture the emerging research on studies on a range of topics, from the transition to college to those that focus on postsecondary success.  To date, the WWC has reviewed over 200 studies on postsecondary programs and interventions, and this area continues grow rapidly. In fact, several Office of Postsecondary Education grant competitions add competitive priority preference points for applicants that submit studies that meet WWC standards. (Keep an eye out for a blog post on the postsecondary topic coming soon!)

3) You can find what works using our online tool. Wondering how to get started with so many resources at your fingertips? Find What Works lets you do a quick comparison of interventions for different subjects, grades, and student populations. Want to know more about a specific intervention? We’ve produced more than 400 intervention reports to provide you the evidence about a curriculum, program, software product, or other intervention for your classroom before you choose it.  Recently, we’ve added a feature that allows a user to search for interventions that have worked for different populations of students and in different geographic locations. As we mentioned in a recent blog post, the Find What Works tool is undergoing an even bigger transformation this September, so keep visiting!

4) We identify evidence-based practices to use in the classroom. The WWC has produced 19 practice guides that feature practical recommendations and instructional tips to help educators address common challenges. Practice guides (now available for download as ebooks) provide quick, actionable guidance for educators that are supported by evidence and expert knowledge within key areas.  Some of our guides now feature accompanying videos and brief summaries that demonstrate recommended practices and highlight the meaning behind the levels of evidence. The work of practice guides are also actively disseminated during Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Bridge events. For instance, REL Southwest held a webinar on Teaching Math to Young Children, which was based on a WWC practice guide. For more information, read a previously published blog post on practice guides.

5) We compile information by topic. Our “Special Features” pages focus on common themes in education, such as tips for college readiness, information for heading back to school, and guidance for what works in early childhood education. These Special Features provide a starting point to access a variety of WWC resources related to a topic.

In the coming months, we’ll post other blogs that will explore different parts of the WWC and tell you about ongoing improvements. So keep visiting the What Works website or signup to receive emails when we release new reports or resources. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The What Works Clearinghouse is a part of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the independent research, evaluation, and statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Education. You can learn more about IES’ other work on its website or follow IES on Twitter and Facebook

 

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.