Over the years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded over 300 studies across its research programs that evaluate the efficacy of specific programs, policies, or practices. This work has contributed significantly to our understanding of the interventions that improve outcomes for students under tightly controlled or ideal conditions. But is this information enough to inform policymakers’ and practitioners’ decisions about whether to adopt an intervention? If not, what should come after an efficacy study?
In October 2016, IES convened a group of experts for a Technical Working Group (TWG) meeting to discuss next steps in building the evidence base after an initial efficacy study, and the specific challenges that are associated with this work. TWGs are meant to encourage stakeholders to discuss the state of research on a topic and/or to identify gaps in research.
Part of this discussion focused on replication studies and the critical role they play in the evidence-building process. Replication studies are essential for verifying the results of a previous efficacy study and for determining whether interventions are effective when certain aspects of the original study design are altered (for example, testing an intervention with a different population of students). IES has supported replication research since its inception, but there was general consensus that more replications are needed.
TWG participants discussed some of the barriers that may be discouraging researchers from doing this work. One major obstacle is the idea that replication research is somehow less valuable than novel research—a bias that could be limiting the number of replication studies that are funded and published. A related concern is that the field of education lacks a clear framework for conceptualizing and conducting replication studies in ways that advance evidence about beneficial programs, policies and practices (see another recent IES blog post on the topic).
IES provides support for studies to examine the effectiveness of interventions that have prior evidence of efficacy and that are implemented as part of the routine and everyday practice occurring in schools without special support from researchers. However, IES has funded a relatively small number of these studies (14 across both Research Centers). TWG participants discussed possible reasons for this and pointed out several challenges related to replicating interventions under routine conditions in authentic education settings. For instance, certain school-level decisions can pose challenges for conducting high-quality effectiveness studies, such as restricting the length that interventions or professional development can be provided and choosing to offer the intervention to students in the comparison condition. These challenges can result in findings that are influenced more by contextual factors rather than the intervention itself. TWG participants also noted that there is not much demand for this level of evidence, as the distinction between evidence of effectiveness and evidence of efficacy may not be recognized as important by decision-makers in schools and districts.
In light of these challenges, TWG participants offered suggestions for what IES could do to further support the advancement of evidence beyond an efficacy study. Some of these recommendations were more technical and focused on changes or clarifications to IES requirements and guidance for specific types of research grants. Other suggestions included:
- Prioritizing and increasing funding for replication research;
- Making it clear which IES-funded evaluations are replication studies on the IES website;
- Encouraging communication and partnerships between researchers and education leaders to increase the appreciation and demand for evidence of effectiveness for important programs, practices, and policies; and
- Supporting researchers in conducting effectiveness studies to better understand what works for whom and under what conditions, by offering incentives to conduct this work and encouraging continuous improvement.
TWG participants also recommended ways IES could leverage its training programs to promote the knowledge, skills, and habits that researchers need to build an evidence base. For example, IES could emphasize the importance of training in designing and implementing studies to develop and test interventions; create opportunities for postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers to conduct replications; and develop consortiums of institutions to train doctoral students to conduct efficacy, replication, and effectiveness research in ways that will build the evidence base on education interventions that improve student outcomes.
To read a full summary of this TWG discussion, visit the Technical Working Group website or click here to go directly to the report (PDF).
Written by Katie Taylor, National Center for Special Education Research, and Emily Doolittle, National Center for Education Research