As a school leader, asking teachers to use the most current research in their classrooms is like asking them to swim across the Atlantic Ocean because the continent on the other side is beautiful. While many of your teachers may agree with you in theory, they may not know where to start or how to get there without drowning in the deep. Of course, any journey is easier when the route is well established. For instance, research on how young children develop reading skills is an area with a solid research foundation. Research on helping students learn vocabulary for reading in chemistry classes? That feels more like an uncharted adventure. For middle and high school educators in particular, being asked to apply research to practice can be overwhelming if not downright intimidating. In this post, we discuss some of the barriers that prevent teachers from applying research to practice and what resources you, as an instructional leader, can use to bridge the gap.
Barrier: Educational research is complicated. Education is complex. On any given day there are factors that influence student motivation, attention, and engagement. This makes the work of research hard (and important!). Let’s say that we want to know which strategy is the most effective at supporting skilled argumentation. We randomly assign Crystal to prepare with the “rebuttal battle” and Keon to prepare with the “argumentation organizer.” What we don’t know is that Crystal had a fight with her sister just before class, and Keon had been debating a similar topic with his uncle the day before. These factors swamp the relatively small effect of the difference in our debate preparation strategy. This is the one of the challenges facing educational researchers: to distinguish small average effects in the face of the buzzing complexity of school life.
Researchers use a range of approaches to “control for” the variability across classes and students. The general logic is that if we randomize a large number of students to each condition, the “breakups” and “debate prep” kids will balance out across groups. In that case, we can be more confident in attributing the differences in argumentation to the effectiveness of one of the debate preparation strategies (relative to the other). But interpreting individual studies requires careful reading and usually some statistical knowledge (shameless plug for Reading Ways Data Literacy Course). It is not enough to understand research findings. To make wise decisions, instructional leaders and teachers are expected to ask questions such as:
It takes time to think deeply about research and connect findings to our own experiences as teachers and learners.
Barrier: What works in one school may not work in another. Even when they have a clear understanding of research, educators still need to determine if the findings from one particular educational setting are applicable to their school or classroom community. Studies are always conducted in a particular set of schools or with a particular sample of students: findings cannot always be generalized across student populations. Similarly, effects across sites in cluster randomized trials are heterogeneous, meaning that some profiles of schools benefit more than others (Lawrence et al., 2017). It takes careful research and reading to interpret these heterogeneous effects (Raudenbush & Schwartz, 2020).
Barrier: New practices need to align with existing conditions. Teaching teams often tweak, adapt, append and integrate practices (Correnti et al., 2020; Fogo et al., 2019). For a teacher or teaching team to adopt and adapt a practice, they need to understand the general implications of practice rather than just the “effect size” of a particular program. For example, there might be research that shows a particular program helps students learn academic vocabulary. The school schedule precludes the adoption of the entire program, but there are features of the curriculum that the social studies team wants to use to enhance the existing 7th-grade civic debate project. In order to do so, they need to both understand the relevant research and have time to apply these findings to the conditions on the ground and reflect on the implementation as they launch the new aspects of the program. Implementing research-based practices in schools requires careful planning to ensure we don't compromise things that are already working. We, as leaders, need to support connections to existing practices whenever possible. When we fail to do so, teachers begin to lose confidence that any particular practice is “here to stay.”
These are serious challenges, but before throwing in the towel on implementing research-based practices, let’s remember that people cross the Atlantic Ocean all the time. They don’t swim though; instead, they travel by boat or plane. So what are the travel options for teachers to get from practice to research and back again? There are many approaches that help teachers to narrow the gap, but we will focus on four of them: Reviews of studies, meta-analyses, practice guides, and research/practice partnerships.
Approach: Reviews of Individual Studies: The Institute for Education Science (IES) provides robust funding for randomized trials to evaluate specific interventions using rigorous methods. In fact, one of the difficulties of bringing research-based methods into the classroom is the sheer volume of existing research of this kind! There are organizations that have recognized this issue and have committed to sorting through the research for educators. One of the more well-known resources for this sort of information is the What Works Clearinghouse (WWCH), which is supported by IES. The WWCH website aims to qualify and condense current research into reviews that are easier for educators to use. Unfortunately, these reviews do not focus on contextual factors (like financial and other costs) that are important to school leaders. See our blog on intervention research for a review of alternative approaches.
Approach: Meta-Analyses: Meta-analyses draw conclusions about a topic from the information presented in many studies on related topics. In theory, meta-analyses can help to bridge the gap between research and practice by presenting educators with broad strokes so they do not have to dig through dense research themselves. John Hattie is probably the best-known author of this kind of work (Hattie, 2013). However, as our colleagues Arne Lervåg and Monica Melby-Lervåg point out in their post on Hattie, there are some shortcomings to this work. Their main criticism is that the studies Hattie includes in his meta-analyses are not just poor quality, they are not efficacy studies at all. Hattie includes studies that report correlations but then he reports the results as though they were drawn from experimental or quasi-experimental trials. For instance, Hattie includes Swanson’s “meta-analysis of correlation evidence” (Swanson et al., 2003) documenting the relationships between rapid naming, phonological awareness, and reading in his analysis. In the original analysis, Swanson et al. were trying to clarify relations across subskills by aggregating correlational results across studies. Hattie included this study in his section Reading: phonics instruction. In that section, he explicitly draws out instructional implications from the fact that there is a correlation between measures. We are not saying that his conclusions, in this case, are wrong. But the methods are. We should not draw instructional conclusions from correlational results. Hattie makes similar mistakes across his book. He conflates experimental and correlational studies in a way that compromises his results.
It should be noted that even when meta-analyses are done really well, this sort of study does not provide the contextual details that will be relevant for a teacher or team of teachers trying to implement an instructional idea.
Approach: Practice Guides. Practice guides are probably the most popular bridge between research and classroom practice. Practice guides synthesize research to give digestible suggestions for classroom practice. One of the best-known practice guides for adolescent literacy was commissioned by the Institute of Education Sciences (Kamil et al., 2008). This guide highlights five strategies:
This is probably the most influential practice guide for secondary literacy instruction, but at this point, it is quite out of date. Reynolds (2020) points out that this guide does not highlight themes like close reading, academic language, or multiple-text comprehension. These themes are central to current research about adolescent literacy development. He also notes that at the time the guide was written the quality of the research available on many important topics was limited. Suffice to say, it is a mistake to limit professional learning to practice guides, but they do have a role especially when read alongside reviews like those offered by Dr. Reynolds.
Approach: Research/Practice Partnerships. Imagine a group of researchers collaborating side by side with teachers in a school district to design curricula and conduct research that will directly inform practice. This tight coupling of research and practice is the aim of research/practice partnerships. A model for this kind of partnership is called the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP; National Research Council, 2004). Josh participated in SERP work at the Boston field site while doing his doctorate and completing his postdoctoral fellowship. One of the resulting projects from SERP is the freely available Word Generation curriculum.
One of the goals of this model, as originally conceived, was to develop partnerships that would not be reliant on the funding cycles of the major research agencies. The idea was that states and districts could contribute a portion of their budgets to supporting the institute which would demonstrate its value to its collaborators. The model would allow researchers and educators to think of and answer tough questions without worrying about a four-year window for completing a study (this is the normal timeline for IES-funded studies). It is not clear that these funding mechanisms are feasible. SERP has been incredibly successful in generating knowledge and creating (fantastic) resources for schools, but has done so through traditional research and philanthropic funding sources, and usually in partnership with larger districts.
Reading Ways is trying to develop another model for research/practice partnerships. We bring together researchers and practitioners in our networks and work directly with schools to connect research with specific practices. We use our OASIS coaching model to support teachers and coaches, as they test and reflect on research-based practice, and connect their experience to the research we discuss together. Our model allows us to collaborate with districts of all sizes. As a business rather than a non-profit, Reading Ways focuses on providing direct value to our partner schools. We are invested in the success of our projects. We have “skin in the game” (Taleb, 2020) and we do not claim to be “unbiased researchers.” However, we take our cue from commercial technology and R&D firms in believing that transparent commercial incentives are compatible with knowledge generation. In fact, we have found that the rapid prototyping and beta testing cycles that we employ have been incredibly generative. We believe that as we scale up we will come to make important knowledge contributions not only to our networks and partner schools, but also to the scientific community.
Final Remarks: Is it worth it?
We have seen the importance of using research to inform practice and the pitfalls of failing to do so. We believe that using peer-reviewed research should be a component of a data-driven decision-making process that we use to support literacy in our schools. Importantly, we have found that the most important aspect of using research to inform instruction is the discussion and debate that it can engender among our staff. A strategy that is not implemented strategically is not a strategy, it is just a worksheet. It does not matter if that strategy has a research base behind it. Our teachers are skilled professionals and they need time to digest and test research findings. When they do so, research can become an important resource for our school communities.