Consistent with the theme of the Fifth Annual Research Conference, Connecting Research, Policy and Practice, more than 1,200 education researchers, policymakers, and staff heard a consistent message from plenary speakers to pursue action-oriented, useable research in partnership with educators.
In his remarks during the opening plenary session, Secretary Arne Duncan referred to education research as "the compass for education reform, guiding us forward" and encouraged attendees to form partnerships with policymakers and practitioners in their communities. He announced that the FY 2011 budget includes a proposed increase of $60 million to increase research opportunities at IES.
"We need you to tell us whether we're on the right path," Duncan said. "You need to point the way for the future of education reform. You give us the cold hard facts and help us navigate our way to providing a world-class education to every child."
In his speech, IES Director John Easton outlined the Institute's early progress in creating initiatives that will bring to fruition his goal of building partnerships that engender relevant, useful research. In a special roundtable with IES-funded predoctoral and postdoctoral Fellows and program officers on the last day of the conference, he also spoke of the need to recruit and develop a new kind of education researcher—trained scientists interested in engaging with practitioners and asking more of the relevant questions that really matter to schools and lead to lasting, meaningful improvement in student outcomes.
"I am going to implore you to rethink the traditional model that has governed educational research for too long," Easton said during his speech. "We talk a good game about wanting our work to help schools. But we don't create the kind of incentives for young academics to pursue the action-oriented research that we need to help schools improve."
Both speeches mentioned the recently announced "Reading for Understanding Research Initiative," a $100 million network initiative that will create partnerships between researchers, teachers, and school leaders and take a comprehensive approach to tackling the problem of improving reading comprehension.
Charles Payne, the main plenary speaker and a professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, echoed many of these themes in urging attendees to "work in tandem with practitioners" to rethink research priorities and go beyond the result of "no-effects" studies.
"Being in a constant, respectful dialog with practitioners will change the questions we give priority to, and some of these questions might be more powerful than the ones we have been spending most of our time and resources on," Payne said. "We also need to study interventions in terms of context. If we were to do that, and I understand how much more difficult that would make everyone's lives, it would also mean we would be able to tell much more complicated stories about what we found."
National Board for Education Sciences Chair Eric Hanushek challenged researchers to dig deeper—in a relevant and rigorously scientific way—to develop scientific designs that allow us to look beyond the simple question of "does something work or not work" and to provide evidence that will inform the education policy of current and future administrations.
The Fifth Annual Research Conference and Poster Exhibition was held June 28–30 at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, MD. The conference featured 32 panel and open-forum sessions in four topical tracks (methodology, teaching and learning, social and behavioral, policy) and nearly 500 poster presentations in 20 research categories, all of IES-supported research. This year's research conference represented an additional milestone in the Institute's effort to build a national community of education researchers, with conference attendance having grown from approximately 500 at the first conference in 2006 to more than 1,200 in 2010.
Education scholar and noted methodology expert Anthony Bryk detailed five essential "ingredients" of successful school reform and challenged researchers to study pressing problems of practice during a recent presentation to IES staff and guests.
During the 90-minute discussion entitled "Systematic Naturalistic Inquiry: Learning from Practice to Improve It," Bryk detailed key findings and a case study from his book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, which he co-wrote with his former colleagues from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (including IES director John Easton). He also talked about how this knowledge is shaping a new vision of research and development at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where he serves as president.
In Organizing Schools, researchers identified 100 elementary schools that had substantially improved and 100 that stagnated during the decade after decentralization reforms in Chicago Public Schools. They analyzed 15 years of data from a range of sources—school performance, student and teacher surveys, census, crimes, public housing, child protective services—to understand what the successful schools did to accelerate student learning and under what conditions.
Telling the story through two elementary schools in the same neighborhood with identical demographics, Bryk described the five "essential supports" for improvement—including strong school leadership, professional capacity and collaboration among faculty and staff, a student-centered learning climate, a culture that welcomes parent and community ties, and strong instructional guidance and materials.
Bryk compared the essential supports to a recipe for baking a cake: Without the right ingredients, the effort falls apart.
Shifting gears to his work at Carnegie, Bryk also talked about how his independent research and policy center is rethinking the engineering process behind successful school reform. All innovation must be understood in its local context, Bryk argued, so it is not enough to know that a particular program can work—researchers also need to learn how to make innovation work reliably over many diverse contexts and situations. He also stressed that researchers need to tackle large-scale issues driven by real-world problems—for example, the large number of college students who drop out because they can't pass college math classes—rather than focusing on their own particular interest or specialty.
"At Carnegie, we are focused 100 percent on finding answers to the most pressing school questions," Bryk said. "This sounds so obvious. But it's not characteristic of so much improvement work that happens in the field."