The status of evidence-supported educational practices

We know what works, so why isn't that helping?

Go to the profile of Eric Kalenze
Jun 27, 2017
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Aiming to reverse long-disappointing system outcomes, the U.S. threw reforms of all kinds at its education enterprise in recent decades:

  • charter schools – public schools with greater operational flexibility – were nurtured and grown from their inception in the 1990s, giving American families more enrollment choices and, by extension, giving traditional public schools a jolt of market competition;
  • the Common Core standards, a collection of stronger academic standards (at least according to its authors), were constructed and adopted by 42 U.S. states;
  • federal law required that standardized tests be administered annually to measure students’ progress, and scores were used to formally identify and act upon long-underperforming schools;
  • time- and energy-intensive evaluation systems—working in concert with scores on standardized tests—were instituted to formally evaluate teachers’ and administrators’ job performances;
  • billions of dollars (sometimes from taxpayers, courtesy of federal grant programs like the Investing in Innovation Fund and Race to the Top) were invested to develop and test-drive promising educational ideas;
  • …and so on.

Taken together, the reform activity of this roughly twenty-year span (all examples above hit their fullest strides behind 2001’s No Child Left Behind [NCLB] Act) is sure to draw special note from future historians of American education. It has dealt a truly foundation-rocking impact, re-organizing enterprise operations and emphases to an extent that few similar time periods can claim.

U.S. education reforms aren’t working. Why not?

However, for all the time, money, and angst that’s been spent creating and fostering the new accountabilities, innovations, and market forces of the past couple of decades, nothing near a commensurate improvement in student outcomes has been returned. The problematic and reform-catalytic achievement gaps between demographic groups have barely budged, for example, and the U.S. remains firmly lodged among the mediocre in international education comparisons.

Student results aside, the reforms didn’t even do themselves very well. Complex educator-evaluation schemes still appear far away from being able to accurately or reliably assess teacher quality, for instance, and massively funded, highly regulated school-turnaround programs really only succeeded at proving, once and for all, that lots more bureaucracy is probably not the thing struggling schools need most.

So what, exactly, did all these reforms miss? If all the new innovation, accountability, and competition didn’t snap U.S. educators out of their presumed complacence and improve results, what could possibly remain to be improved?

Evidence, please—and let’s use it!

The answer, at least to some observer-critics of American Education over the past five to six decades (and I am one—my book Education is Upside-Down [1] focuses intensively on these kinds of issues), is quite simple: evidence.

There’s not a dearth of practice-informing evidence, and the bridging structures between evidence bases and practitioners aren’t in bad shape; much to the contrary, more becomes understood every day about how people learn, about what kinds of conditions/techniques best enable such learning, about what has worked elsewhere, etc., and continuing professional development is an administrative requirement for pretty well every U.S. educator.

The American education enterprise’s main issue with evidence-supported practices, rather, is that these practices are not, in general, the practices that education’s practitioners and their leaders would prefer to use. As this has been the case for several generations of American Education, the philosophically and intuitively appealing—but not evidence-supported—practices and approaches have become hardened into the entire system’s core ideals and values.

Recall those complicated teacher-evaluation systems, for example. Look at pretty much any one of them (they’re usually available to the public via districts’ websites), and it’s a good bet you’ll find a large number of evidence-unverified practices described as ‘exemplary’ or worth aspiring to. Highly student-centered (read: less structured, highly differentiated, and/or ‘constructivist’) teaching approaches, for instance, which objective study has pretty well never shown to be more effective for students with more profound learning needs [2], are often held up by such evaluation systems as the school’s/district’s/state’s preferred methods.

(It should be little wonder, then, that teachers can be graded as effective by such evaluation systems without concurrently increasing student results, which the previously cited National Council on Teacher Quality report showed to be fairly common across the U.S.).

In all, the American education enterprise’s preference for intuitively appealing practices—exciting, shiny, innovative ones and long-proven-ineffective-but-unkillable ‘zombies’ alike—is blocking many American children from getting all they could out of their schooling. Though we’ve overlooked the issue for far too long, assuming instead that a lack of accountability or imagination are at the root of our system’s shortcomings, some recent developments suggest that national education leaders are starting to catch on.

In follow-up pieces for the Science of Learning Community, I’ll explore some of these recent developments and elaborate a bit more on the education enterprise’s stubborn resistance to evidence-based educational practices: its origins, its costs, its international parallels (i.e. outside the U.S.), and some specific examples of the types of practices I’ve referred to throughout this piece.

[1] Kalenze, Eric L. Education is Upside-Down. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 2014. Print.

[2] Many works in the past 30-40 years of education explore the weak evidence bases of student-centered teaching approaches. For two particularly rich resources, see The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom? (Chall, Jeanne S., and Marilyn Jager Adams. New York: Guilford, 2002. Print.) and Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories (Hirsch, E.D. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education, 2016. Print.) To learn more about Project Follow Through, an extensive government-sponsored project that aimed to directly test educational methods against one another for effectiveness and that ran over several decades, see Effective School Practices 15.1 (Winter 1995-96): n. pag. University of Oregon, Dec. 1995. Web. 21 June 2017.

Go to the profile of Eric Kalenze

Eric Kalenze

Author & Consultant, Independent

Eric Kalenze’s career in education has included posts in teaching, administration, and consulting. He is the author of the 2014 book Education Is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems, and he regularly contributes pieces about education practice, research, and reform to publications like Education Week, Education Post, and TES US, as well as to his blog, ‘A Total Ed Case’. He lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area with his wife, two daughters and one Puggle.

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