Knowledge,Research, Education and Reform

I was following the links from the latest Carnival of Education today as well as making the rounds of some of my regular online education stops. The theme that hit me today concerned what we know about how to make schools or education work. Below are links, quotes and comments from the posts that got me thinking.

Tim Fredrick at the The Teacher Research Blog had a post on Scientifically-Based Research & Teacher Research. He writes:

And, when I think about it, nothing about teaching reminds me of “science”. Even my best methods, the ones that always work, I find that they don’t always work with every student. Classroom teachers know that not everything works every time with every student. It just doesn’t. Naming methods as based on “scientific research” intimates that they work in every scenario. Just as I get suspicious that the newest diet method is “easy” and “fast,” I get suspicious when educational products work all the time – even most of the time – for everyone – even most teachers….

When will politicians and policy-makers learn that education is not something else? It is not business. It is not medicine. It is something entirely of its own and the person who is most qualified to decide if a method or educational product works is the classroom teacher. Reading the document from NIL was helpful in understanding what is meant by this oft-used term. But, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the document intimates that knowledge about good teaching is not created by teachers, but rather by “scientists”. This does not sit well with me and it should not sit well with other teachers, as well.

This is pretty close to my position. I understand the value of research but also think that the limitations of research get lost when it moves from the academic community to policy discussions. Some of this is related to Sherman Dorn’s insights on Folk Positivism.

That brings up the issue of tests and accountability. I really like what Dr. Jan had to say on this topic:

In education, we have a tendency to measure not what we want to (need to) measure but what we can measure… it’s a lot like measuring someone’s height because you can’t measure their weight. If a person’s weight is proportionate to their height then measuring their height might be a prediction of their weight; but if not, then what’s the point of measuring their height?

In other words, why are we measuring the stuff we are measuring with standardized and criterion-referenced tests when what we really want to measure is children’s ability to collaboratively problem solve and effectively communicate?

I especially like the formulation of the ends of education as “children’s ability to collaboratively problem solve and effectively communicate.”

Dr. Jan is responding to a post by Greg Farr. Farr is much more sanguine about the state of knowledge than Tim Frederick (or me). He takes a theme from a paraphrase of Dr. Brian McNulty:

All the research has basically converged. It is all pretty much saying the same thing. WE KNOW WHAT TO DO. The question is, why aren’t we doing it?”

Farr then explores some of the things we do know and outlines his resolve to put this knowledge into practice. I think Farr will find some success and I applaud his his “time to stop talking and start doing” program.

Yet I continue to have misgivings about the way ideas move from research to policy and practice. I believe that the desire for utility (mostly on the part of researchers) and simple answers (mostly on the part of policy makers) blinds many to the limits and tentative nature of (even scientific) research findings. I am much more comfortable with data guided policy than data driven policy and prefer policy makers and practitioners who are cognizant of what research (scientific based and other) and data can tell us and what it can’t.

Related links:

What Works Clearinghouse
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Think Tank Review Project
MMSD Classroom Action Research

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, No Child Left Behind

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