We Understand What Works, Why Don’t We Pay Attention?

Years ago when I was actively writing educational grants for a living, there was a federal program that supported replication of previously funded grants.  It was possible to funded to take the results/methods/findings of successful prior grants and try to replicate those programs in your own setting.  For reasons unknown to me, that program faded out of existence about the same time that federal funds for education grants declined overall, and eligibility rules were tightened to direct more of the limited funds to needy districts.

This, I think, was a great loss.  A few projects that proposed to develop new approaches to problems that had been successfully addressed in other settings continued to be funded.  Replications projects disappeared.  This sad development was not surprising, because we live in a society in which what works is regularly set aside for the next new idea–we have to replace everything with something new.  It’s just not acceptable in American society to keep doing the same thing year after year–the new is assumed to be better.

We see this in the drug industry again and again–they keep looking for new drugs to replace effective ones which are out of patent, and hence less profitable.  So they promote the new drug even when it’s no more, and often less, effective than the old one.  We fertilize fields to keep growing the same crops year after year even when crop rotation continues to be as effective, and in many agricultural settings, more effective and more profitable.  But Monsanto tells everyone fertilizer is the only way to go.  The media and corporate pressure for change, change, change overwhelms the research again and again.

How does this play out in education?  In simple terms, the education industry continuously ignores the research about what works in schools and goes for some new idea, which is often no more than a rehash of an old one in different clothes, and often a bastardization of an effective program that is actually less effective.  We have researchers who must do new research and publish new data for their career advancement, which helps to generate this churn.  We have publishers who are quick to grab new ideas as the next best thing regardless of any evidence of efficacy.  This is ‘corporate think’–new is always better, period.

In a recent Education Week special edition entitled Leaders to Learn From, February 6, 2013, several educational leaders were identified as exemplary folks who made a difference in their schools.  Read about all of these standouts here.  Leadership examples cover 15 topics: Dropout reduction, English-Learners, school turnarounds, transportation, rural enrollment, special education, district-union partnerships, parent engagement, school climate, college readiness, digital learning, social networking, discipline, STEM education and smart growth.

What strikes me about virtually all of these leaders is that their work is not dependent on formal assessments to drive teacher and principal performance.  It is dependent on creative leaders who have paid attention to the research literature about what works, looked at and adopted programs that work elsewhere.  They have adapted those ideas to their local districts, often thinking out of the box, but always taking good ideas that have been known for years and supported the implementation of those ideas in the local environment.

The one exception I see in the special report is Clark Hults, Superintendent of a New York Adirondack Mountains ultra-rural one room schoolhouse district with under 100 students K-12.  He created an outreach program to recruit international students who live with local families, growing his district, generating income that funds programs, and creating a richly diverse student body from an otherwise rural monoculture.  This was truly thinking out of the box to find a unique and creative solution to maintaining programs in a district where consolidation with neighbors would mean hours of school bus time beyond the hours already required– rural here is really rural.

Aside from this example, these leaders are experts at taking proven ideas and implementing them to improve their schools.  This is, I think, a significant accomplishment and overall, an example of where public educators have missed the boat.  We should be paying attention to what works and finding a way to replicate the successes of others.  When I started my Masters program in 1968, my advisor always noted that educational research is about 20 years behind classroom practice.  In some domains, that remains true–in others, the research is almost totally disregarded by the K-12 field.

Yes, that’s an overstatement.  Many K-12 educators know what works, but a combination of lack of funding and political decisions that impose constraints and requirements on schools create mountainous obstacles working against using the research to help students.  As educational leaders, we should try to emulate those among us who buck the system and pay attention to what works.  And we need to promote and highlight the exemplary educators among us that manage to do so, like those highlighted by Education Week last month.  It’s the only way we can turn the tide back to making use of sound educational research instead of the corporate metrics that drive K-12 today.

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