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 email@example.com.)
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.