Friday, December 19, 2008

Look Who Else is Obstructing Education.

Would you believe education researchers? Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, had intended a sort of “Consumer Reports” model when he founded the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) for evaluating all sorts of new-fangled education ideas. He probably should have talked to Consumer Reports first. They would have told him that companies do not like it when Consumer Reports give their products a bad rating. Apparently neither do education researchers, education program publishers and their lobbyists.

The WWC wanted to be the go-to “central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education.” But obstacles arose.

Launched by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences in 2002, the What Works Clearinghouse was originally intended to be a Consumer Reports-style Web resource where educators could find reliable information on “what works” in schools. But early on, it developed a reputation as the “nothing works” clearinghouse because few reviews were posted on its Web site and even fewer pointed to promising strategies for improving schools.

“You can’t spend $30 million of the public purse and have something that is referred to repeatedly in the media as ‘nothing works,’ ” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who is widely credited with having spearheaded the clearinghouse’s launch during his term as the IES director, which ended last month.

What were the main problems?

...Mr. Whitehurst said project delays resulted in part from disagreements over procedures for screening studies, legal threats from program developers whose work got low ratings from the clearinghouse, congressional lobbying that was critical of the clearinghouse, and a dearth of well-executed studies on which to base its reviews.

Fortunately, the WWC has cleared many of its earlier hurdles.

Over the last two years, the clearinghouse has picked up the pace of its work, publishing increasing numbers of reviews with “positive” findings, and producing new products, such as practice guides, that are targeted to practitioners. According to Jill Constantine, the deputy director of the clearinghouse, its Web site now gets 50,000 to 60,000 “hits” a month and offers 100 research reports, seven practice guides, and a series of new quick reviews, which vet studies that have been spotlighted in the news media.

Mark R. Dynarski, the clearinghouse director, noted that the seven practice guides have been downloaded “more times than the entire 100 reports.”

“Educators are voting with their feet­—or clicks,” he said.

The WWC has help.

Susan Bodilly, the education director for the RAND Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., described her research group’s Promising Practices Network, which examines the evidence on programs and policies aimed at improving children’s lives.

Ms. Bodilly notes the missing ingredient.

Yet where most such efforts fall short, said Ms. Bodilly, is in providing advice for practitioners on how to put programs in place and sustain them over time. “That’s the missing ingredient in this approach,” she added.

Just bringing answers to the educators is not enough to bring about changes in practice, added James H. “Torch” Lytle, a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a former Trenton, N.J., school superintendent.

“We know hand washing reduces infections in hospitals,” he told the group. “Yet infection control continues to be a problem in hospitals.”

“If we can’t get hospital staff to do something as simple as washing hands,” he asked, how can teachers be expected to enact far more sophisticated changes in their own practice?

Maybe twenty years ago, a researcher presented the Johns Hopkins CIRC literacy program at our educator day. We were given an elementary basal reader and we practiced customizing the approach to the reader. The idea was that teachers should go back to their schools and customize their own materials. I did exactly that with my middle school science texts even though the program targets primary and elementary students. I instantly perceived the usefulness of the program for my students, 49 percent of whom were not native speakers of English. Every single one of my bilingual students dramatically improved and the achievement of native speakers of English skyrocketed.

I guess I was not the only teacher to recognize the program's advantages for bilingual education. The beauty of the program was its adaptability to any text.

The problem was that most teachers did not go back and “do likewise.” They were too busy or it was too difficult or something. So Johns Hopkins reformulated the program and in its new incarnation, district superintendents love to purchase it and teachers love to villify it. Today educators know CIRC as Success for All. As CIRC, it was nearly free. As Success for All it costs a small fortune.

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