Friday, February 13, 2009

Education Week Reports that 'Scientifically Based' is Giving Way to 'Development' and 'Innovation'

The headline in the January 28 issue of Education Week suggests that the pendulum is swinging from obtaining rigorous scientific evidence to providing greater freedom for development and innovation.

Is there reason to believe this is more than a war of catch phrases? Does supporting innovative approaches take resources away from “scientifically based research”? A January 30 interview with Arne Duncan, our new Secretary of Education, by CNN’s Campbell Brown is revealing. She asked him about the innovative program in Chicago that pays students for better grades. Here is how the conversation went:

Duncan: every other profession we recognize, reward and incent excellence. I think we need to do more of that in education.

CNN: For the students specifically, you think money is the way to do that? It’s the best incentive?

Duncan: I don’t think it is the best incentive; I think it's one incentive. This is a pilot program we started this fall so it’s very early on. But so far the data is very encouraging—so far the students’ attendance rates have gone up, students’ grades have gone up, and these are communities where the drop out rate has been unacceptably high and whatever we can do to challenge that status quo. When children drop out today, Campbell as you know, they are basically condemned to social failure. There are no good jobs out there so we need to be creative; we need to push the envelope. I don’t know if this is the right answer. We’ve got a control group.

CNN: But is it something that you would like to try across the country, to have other schools systems adopt?

Duncan: Again, Campbell, this is...we are about four months into it in Chicago. We have a control group where this is not going on, so we’re going to follow what the data tells us. And if it’s successful, we’ll look to expand it. If it’s not successful, we’ll stop doing it. We want to be thoughtful but I think philosophically I am pro pushing the envelope, challenging the status quo, and thinking outside the box...

Read more from the interview here.

Notice that he is calling for innovation: “pushing the envelope challenging the status quo, thinking outside the box.” But he is not divorcing innovation from rigorously controlled effectiveness research. He is also looking at preliminary findings of changes such as attendance rates that can be detected early. The “scientifically based” research is built into the innovation’s implementation at the earliest stage. And it is used as a basis for decisions about expansion.

While there may be reason to increase funding for development, we can’t divorce rigorous research from development; nor should we consider experimental evaluations as activities that kick in after an innovation has been fielded. We are skeptical that there is a real conflict between scientific research and innovation. The basic problem for research and development in education is not too much attention to rigorous research, but too little overall resources going into education. The graphic included in the Ed Week story makes clear that the R&D investment in education is miniscule compared to R&D for the military, energy, and heath sectors (health gets 100 times as much as education, whereas the category “other” gets 16 times as much).

The Department of Defense, of course, gets a large piece of the pie, and we often see the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held up as an example of a federal agency devoted to addressing innovative and often futuristic, requirements. The Internet started as one such engineering project, the ARPANET. In this case, researchers needed to access information flexibly from computers situated around the country and the innovative distributed approach turned out to be massively scalable and robust. Although we don’t always see that research is built in as a continuous part of engineering development, every step was in fact an experiment. While testing an engineering concept may take a few minutes of data collection, in education, the testing can be more cumbersome. Cognitive development and learning take months or years to generate measurable gains and experiments need careful ways to eliminate confounders that often don’t trouble engineering projects. Education studies are also not as amenable to clever technical solutions (although the vision of something as big the Internet coming in to disrupt and reconfigure education is tantalizing).

It is always appealing to see the pendulum swing with a changing of the guard. In the current transition, what is coming about looks more like a synthesis in which research and development are no longer treated as separate— and certainly not seen as competitors. —DN

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