Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Conversation About Building State and Local Research Capacity

John Q Easton, director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), came to New Orleans recently to participate in the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. At one of his stops, he was the featured speaker at a meeting of the Directors of Research and Evaluation (DRE), an organization composed of school district research directors. (DRE is affiliated with AERA and was recently incorporated as a 501(c)(3)). John started his remarks by pointing out that for much of his career he was a school district research director and felt great affinity to the group. He introduced the directions that IES was taking, especially how it was approaching working with school systems. He spent most of the hour fielding questions and engaging in discussion with the participants. Several interesting points came out of the conversation about roles for the researchers who work for education agencies.

“...in parallel to building a research culture in districts, it will be necessary to build a practitioner culture among researchers.”

Historically, most IES research grant programs have been aimed at university or other academic researchers. It is noteworthy that even in a program for “Evaluation of State and Local Education Programs and Policies,” grants have been awarded only to universities and large research firms. There is no expectation that researchers working for the state or local agency would be involved in the research beyond the implementation of the program. The RFP for the next generation of Regional Education Labs (REL) contracts may help to change that. The new RFP expects the RELs to work closely with education agencies to define their research questions and to assist alliances of state and local agencies in developing their own research capacity.

Members of the audience noted that, as district directors of research, they often spend more time reviewing research proposals from students and professors at local colleges who want to conduct research in their schools, rather than actually answering questions initiated by the district. Funded researchers treat the districts as the “human subjects,” paying incentives to participants and sometimes paying for data services. But the districts seldom participate in defining the research topic, conducting the studies, or benefiting directly from the reported findings. The new mission of the RELs to build local capacity will be a major shift.

Some in the audience pointed out reasons to be skeptical that this REL agenda would be possible. How can we build capacity if research and evaluation departments across the country are being cut? In fact, very little is known about the number of state or district practitioners whose capacity for research and evaluation could be built by applying the REL resources. (Perhaps, a good first research task for the RELs would be to conduct a national survey to measure the existing capacity.)

John made a good point in reply: IES and the RELs have to work with the district leadership—not just the R&E departments—to make this work. The leadership has to have a more analytic view. They need to see the value of having an R&E department that goes beyond test administration, and is able to obtain evidence to support local decisions. By cultivating a research culture in the district, evaluation could be routinely built in to new program implementations from the beginning. The value of the research would be demonstrated in the improvements resulting from informed decisions. Without a district leadership team that values research to find out what works for the district, internal R&E departments will not be seen as an important capacity.

Some in the audience pointed out that in parallel to building a research culture in districts, it will be necessary to build a practitioner culture among researchers. It would be straightforward for IES to require that research grantees and contractors engage the district R&E staff in the actual work, not just review the research plan and sign the FERPA agreement. Practitioners ultimately hold the expertise in how the programs and research can be implemented successfully in the district, thus improving the overall quality and relevance of the research.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Looking Back 35 Years to Learn about Local Experiments

With the growing interest among federal agencies in building local capacity for research, we took another look at an article by Lee Cronbach published in 19751. We found it has a lot to say about conducting local experiments and implications for generalizability. Cronbach worked for much of his career at Empirical’s neighbor, Stanford University, and his work has had a direct and indirect influence on our thinking. Some may interpret Cronbach’s work as stating that randomized trials of educational interventions have no value because of the complexity of interactions between subjects, contexts, and the experimental treatment. In any particular context, these interactions are infinitely complex, forming a “hall of mirrors” (as he famously put it, p. 119), making experimental results—which at most can address a small number of lower-order interactions—irrelevant. We don’t read it that way. Rather, we see powerful insights as well as cautions for conducting the kinds of field experiments that are beginning to show promise for providing educators with useful evidence.

We presented these ideas at the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness conference in March, building the presentation around a set of memorable quotes from the 1975 article. Here we highlight some of the main ideas.

Quote #1: “When we give proper weight to local conditions, any generalization is a working hypothesis, not a conclusion…positive results obtained with a new procedure for early education in one community warrant another community trying it. But instead of trusting that those results generalize, the next community needs its own local evaluation” (p. 125).

Practitioners are making decisions for their local jurisdiction. An experiment conducted elsewhere (including over many locales, where the results are averaged) provides a useful starting point, but not “proof” that it will or will not work in the same way locally. Experiments give us a working hypothesis concerning an effect, but it has to be tested against local conditions at the appropriate scale of implementation. This brings to mind California’s experience with class size reduction following the famous experiment in Tennessee, and how the working hypothesis corroborated through the experiment did not transfer to a different context. We also see applicability of Cronbach’s ideas in the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, where initial evidence is being taken as a warrant to scale-up intervention, but where the grants included funding for research under new conditions where implementation may head in unanticipated directions, leading to new effects.

Quote #2: “Instead of making generalization the ruling consideration in our research, I suggest that we reverse our priorities. An observer collecting data in one particular situation… will give attention to whatever variables were controlled, but he will give equally careful attention to uncontrolled conditions .… As results accumulate, a person who seeks understanding will do his best to trace how the uncontrolled factors could have caused local departures from the modal effect. That is, generalization comes late, and the exception is taken as seriously as the rule” (pp. 124-125).

Finding or even seeking out conditions that lead to variation in the treatment effect facilitates external validity, as we build an account of the variation. This should not be seen as a threat to generalizability because an estimate of average impact is not robust across conditions. We should spend some time looking at the ways that the intervention interacts differently with local characteristics, in order to determine which factors account for heterogeneity in the impact and which ones do not. Though this activity is exploratory and not necessarily anticipated in the design, it provides the basis for understanding how the treatment plays out, and why its effect may not be constant across settings. Over time, generalizations can emerge, as we compile an account of the different ways in which the treatment is realized and the conditions that suppress or accentuate its effects.

Quote #3: “Generalizations decay” (p. 122).

In the social policy arena, and especially with the rapid development of technologies, we can’t expect interventions to stay constant. And we certainly can’t expect the contexts of implementation to be the same over many years. The call for quicker turn-around in our studies is therefore necessary, not just because decision-makers need to act, but because any finding may have a short shelf life. - AJ & DN

[1] Cronbach, L. J. (1975). Beyond the two disciplines of scientifi­c psychology. American Psychologist, 116-127.