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Research That Teachers Can Trust

By: G. Reid Lyon
Making the teaching of reading into a research-based profession requires that research findings be trustworthy and understandable to the classroom teacher. This article summarizes recent initiatives to improve the use of reading research in the classroom, and argues for increased efforts in these areas.

Helen Bernstein once said that "if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."

Educational research can and should play a major role in improving student achievement, but it won't unless significant dedication, intellectual capital, collaborative problem-identification and problem-solving, and a commitment to a systematic and sustained effort are brought to bear on the issues surrounding the translation of research to practice. Some progress has been made over the past five years, but substantial work remains to be done.

Allow me to summarize a number of relatively new initiatives that have attempted to address issues of research trustworthiness, teacher preparation, and research translation and provide selected recommendations for your consideration in each of these areas.

Research trustworthiness

We must raise the trustworthiness, that is, appropriateness and rigor, of all education-related research. It will be important to ensure that all Federally-supported research adhere to the highest standards of excellence and we must encourage privately funded research initiatives to embrace these standards as well.

A major first step in this regard is to undertake a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the educational research literature that is relevant to classroom instructional practices, determine the degree to which the research studies meet standard research criteria, and identify the extent to which research of high conceptual and methodological quality converges on particular findings, and determine the readiness of these findings for application in the classroom.

Within this context, the National Reading Panel (NRP) has concluded its analysis of the quantitative experimental data base relevant to reading instruction and has presented its findings and determinations to Congress. It is important to note that this Report was able to identify instructional approaches that are ready for classroom implementation. Also important was the finding that a substantial portion of the quantitative and experimental instructional reading research is not capable of informing instruction.

These findings provide a clear road map of the gaps that continue to exist in the reading research, and the efforts that will be required to improve research quality, particularly from a methodological standpoint. The NICHD and the OERI are working closely together to develop formal strategic plans to ensure the accurate dissemination of the findings of the NRP and the development of specific strategies to actually implement the findings.

The Federal development and support of the Reading Excellence Act (REA) also represents a major step forward in specifying the types and level of methodological rigor of educational research required to make genuine "research-based decisions when selecting and implementing reading approaches and programs."

In addition, Federal support for the Interagency Educational Research Initiative (IERI) is a significant collaborative step toward improving not only the quality of educational research, but the identification of the conditions that need to be in place to translate and scale research findings to the necessary level to improve student achievement in complex educational environments.

The NICHD and the OERI are working closely together on the continued development and evaluation of the REA and are working with the National Science Foundation in the development and management of the IERI.

At a more local level, the NICHD and the OERI have been working closely together to develop and implement models of the peer-review process to ensure that grant applications receive the attention they deserve from highly qualified researchers with specific expertise in the scientific and educational domains represented in the grants.

In addition to these ongoing efforts, several additional recommendations are offered:

We must develop formal mechanisms to synthesize research that is trustworthy and relevant to instructional practices used in classrooms and with children at-risk for academic failure. A major key to developing a solid and trustworthy research base that will ultimately inform practice is to demonstrate how research findings converge on a particular instructional practice or principle.

Research syntheses can also serve a much needed and critical role in assessing the validity of various philosophical and theoretical assumptions that have traditionally guided educational practice before they have been formally evaluated. The tendency in education to shift capriciously from one instructional trend to another is clearly influenced by the field's inability to develop sustained, serious research efforts capable of establishing evidentiary convergence and ensuring replication of findings.

Again, the work and the findings of the NRP is a critical step in this process of establishing clear quality standards for research and evaluating and synthesizing existing studies with respect to these criteria. I would like to offer the Report of the National Reading Panel for inclusion in the hearing record.

We must strive to increase the research-based quality of educational materials and programs that are offered commercially to schools. It is generally not appreciated that more often than not, schools purchase educational and instructional materials and text books on the basis of non-scientific factors. Rarely are the instructional methods and procedures recommended in these materials objectively evaluated to determine how effective they are with children of varying abilities and with children in different types of instructional settings.

Consumers must ultimately be able to know and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a given educational material or instructional approach and clearly understand the limitations of the research that supports a particular educational product.

The research community must begin to address the tendency to conduct narrowly focused studies, studies that often adhere to philosophical rather than scientific principles. The polarization of research methodologies into a quantitative-qualitative dichotomy reflects a parochial and value-laden perspective that will not advance our knowledge, and will distract the research community from establishing the most compelling research need – TRUSTWORTHINESS.

The complex problems that we hope to solve require an answer to this question: Which combinations of research methodologies and approaches are most appropriate for which specific research questions, and how are the methodologies best integrated? Some aspects of some questions will have to be addressed under controlled conditions while contextual, cultural, and organizational factors that influence teaching and learning will require qualitative and ethnographic strategies. However, it is likely that the most helpful and enduring answers will be derived from a careful integration of these perspectives applied at the highest level of scientific integrity.

In addition to increasing research efforts to determine how best to integrate research methods in studying complex educational interactions, a significant need also exists to develop measures that are capable of capturing the essence and authenticity of these complex interactions while at the same time ensuring reliability and validity.

Empowering teachers

If trustworthy research findings are going to be effectively used to inform instructional practices in classroom settings, we must acknowledge that teachers must be provided the necessary basic knowledge to translate research into effective classroom practices. Teachers, who are the most important consumers of research, have been let down in this regard. At a minimum, these recommendations are offered:

Systems of accountability must be developed and put into practice to ensure that all teachers have mastery of the content they are teaching, can deliver instruction through a wide range of approaches and methods, and have a clear understanding of individual differences in their students.

Teachers must be prepared to understand the basic principles underlying the development of the skills that they are teaching and how these principles relate to instructional practice. It is also critical that teachers receive basic training in how to access and interpret the research literature relevant to their instructional responsibilities. It is only in this way that they will be empowered to judge both the quality and applicability of the research findings.

All too often, teachers are provided simplistic "magic bullet" solutions to increasing student achievement. Unfortunately and frequently, many instructional approaches have been developed with children in a setting far different from that the teacher now encounters. We must provide teachers with systematic and rigorous training sufficient to develop the ability to evaluate these of claims with confidence.

Teachers must be included in the planning, design, and conduct of educational research that is expected to influence their instructional practices in the classroom. Both researchers and teachers must have the opportunity to develop genuine research collaborations where constant input and feedback are provided bilaterally. This will require substantial changes in the current training of both researchers and teachers.

Moving trustworthy research findings to scale

While the terms "research-based" practices and "translational research" are terms heard frequently today, there continues to be a paucity of knowledge about how best to implement even the best research information into the daily lives of school administrators, teachers, and students.

We don't understand the systemic requirements that are necessary if research is to inform practice in a genuine fashion. We do not yet understand the incentive systems that are critical in helping teachers to modify their belief systems, when appropriate, and incorporate new concepts into their teaching. We don't yet understand how teachers can best be taught to do this. We don't yet understand the amount of time, effort, and resources that are required to address teacher learning, adaptability and change, and we certainly don't yet understand how such things as school district policies and demands, and high stakes assessment influence this process. And most critically, we have not yet developed the fundamental research methods and approaches that can give us a clear view of how different training experiences provided to teachers actually translate into genuine improvements in student achievement.

There are long roads to be traveled for both teacher and student. Disentangling and clarifying the multiple influences that can cause positive changes in both teachers and their students will require the thoughtful and sustained integration of rigorous quantitative and qualitative research methods alluded to earlier.

The hope

The NSF, the OERI, and the NICHD have, over the past two years, concentrated on thinking about these issues in depth. Together, we are attempting to build the research infrastructure that will address some of these questions in a productive manner.

We are hopeful that the IERI will stimulate the research community to engage in the type of planning and interdisciplinary collaboration that will be absolutely critical to changing the ways in which research is translated effectively into practice. We are hopeful that we have designed the IERI initiative in such a way that the complexity of the research tasks that have to be carried out mirror the complexity of the problems that must be understood. We are convinced that the scientific standards demanded by the IERI will move the field forward, and we are likewise convinced that the peer-review structure and standards that are in place to evaluate IERI grant applications will ensure the research quality that is so sorely needed.

It is also imperative that the Federal investment in education research be predicated on and demand quality efforts from the diverse research community. Likewise, the translation of research to practice will not improve unless the relevant funding agencies and the educational community together understand the urgency to adhere to basic principles of trustworthiness in research.

The level of complexity of the problem demands the best of our intellectual and conceptual efforts, the best of our collaborative efforts, and the courage to apply these efforts in a sustained and systematic fashion. There is no question that it can be done and we fervently hope that it will be done.

Excerpted from Lyon, G. R. (May 4, 2000). Education Research and Evaluation and Student Achievement: Quality Counts. Testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives.

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