Research shows that good teachers are the most important ingredient that schools can provide to help students succeed. This is especially true for struggling schools.
Now here’s something we’re realizing about our current education research: Too few educators feel that the research that the US government supports has a tangible impact on their work in the classroom. That’s something that has to change.
Last March, I was appointed as Director of the Institute of Education Sciences. In fiscal 2019, our agency is slated to spend more than $400 million on research in education. For years, I have been concerned with the “last mile” problem—how to get information into the hands of the people who need it the most. My goal is to make information useful, usable and used. Over the past few weeks, in partnership with the Jefferson Education Exchange, IES staff has traveled to both Nebraska and North Carolina to meet with teachers and explore ways we can make IES’s research more relevant and useful.
We’ve found many potholes as we work to shorten the last mile between IES and teachers.
For starters, many teachers view research as a search for bright shiny objects pushed by administrators without adequate attention to the needs and skills of teachers. Many told us they felt that their professional knowledge is all too often neglected in education research and, to use a common phrasing, that research was “done to them not with them.”
We also saw a disconnect between what teachers say they needed help with and what education research can accomplish. For example, a common concern among participants is how social media is transforming the kinds and sources of information students brought into the classroom. Teachers are desperate for information about how to manage classrooms in this new environment. But their needs are frequently expressed at a relatively abstract level that doesn’t easily translate into specific researchable questions of the type supported by IES. This disconnect is yet another reason why engaging with teachers is so important.
I was particularly disheartened to learn that many teachers turn to sources like Google, Edutopia, Twitter, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Pinterest for information. Only a scattered handful of teachers had ever heard of IES or the What Works Clearinghouse. Ditto NCER, NCES, NCSER.
Perhaps most disappointing, the Regional Education Labs (RELs) were mostly unknown. Although RELs work most directly with state and district leaders, their services and resources are available to all—including teachers. When I led a group of Omaha teachers to the REL Central website, they were impressed by the resources on it—but not one of them had ever seen it before.
ERIC is widely known, mostly as a resource used when pursuing graduate education. When asked about their experience with it, the most frequent and kindest word teachers offered was “cumbersome.”
That may be a legacy of time past: When many of these teachers were in graduate school, indeed ERIC was difficult to use; whatever design principles drove it probably derived from card catalogs.
IES spent several years redesigning ERIC and it now has far better functionality and a more modern look and feel. But here’s the lesson: when we get something so wrong, as we did with the old ERIC, we can lose a whole generation of teachers.
IES can and will improve its ability to serve a wider range of stakeholders, including teachers.
We’re cleaning up the jargon in our language and issuing shorter, more readable reports. We’re thinking hard about our social media strategies. And we’re updating the What Works Clearinghouse (and other IES web pages), so as not to scare off another generation of teachers.
Many teachers said that research would be most helpful to them if it were “translated” by other teachers. They want short pieces where a teacher who implemented a research-based program talks about how to implement the program, highlighting what a teacher has to get right and problems they might encounter. We will be addressing this need for translation in the coming months.
IES will continue to meet with teachers and their professional organizations to hear their ideas and needs and to bridge what has felt like a yawning chasm between research and educators. For instance, as part of our work with the Jefferson Education Exchange, we have another meeting scheduled in a few weeks. IES staff recently met with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, since principals are so central to student and teacher success. We will be reaching out to teacher organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of English to see how we can establish a dialogue about research.
In years past, IES has spent much of its budget and energies identifying what works for whom under what circumstances. But that’s only part of our job. Just as important: We need to figure out the best channels to get that information into the hands of teachers, so that more students have teachers who are using the most effective, evidence-based methods. This is a big challenge—perhaps even greater than the work we have done to improve the quality of education research.