If Jane Smith in Arkansas invented a method to ensure the success of rural English language learners, would John Jones in rural Wyoming ever learn about it?
For almost every issue that confronts us about how to improve education, somewhere there is a success story to be told and lessons from which others can benefit. However, there are two problems in need of urgent attention.
First, successful work is rarely documented, evaluated and published — anywhere! That’s why Jones’ students in Wyoming would have little chance of benefiting from Smith’s solution in Arkansas.
Second, we lack a means of assembling the information that does exist in a coherent and accessible fashion.
If we were to make that breakthrough in knowledge, we’d then face the daunting problem of dissemination, getting that information into the hands of practitioners — the millions of professionals who each day confront challenges for which they need knowledge and strategies to help students achieve their full potentials.
Researchers have identified three distinct purposes for dissemination: awareness, understanding and action. In each of these areas different methods can be successful. Most education research fails in all three areas. Unfortunately, what we lack are strategies, methods and resources to achieve these ends.
When research is commissioned, it generally gets very little attention and, therefore, awareness is low that work is being done on a particular issue. Even after the work is completed, in most cases only a small group of researchers knows about it; rarely do practitioners, unless it generates some buzz because the results are controversial. There’s also no central database that stores this information and makes it available to other researchers, unlike in the medical and legal professions.
The use of dissemination for understanding is another strategy. Here the audience may be policymakers or senior managers who need to understand more about specific research efforts so that their actions can be based on that knowledge.
Finally, and most importantly, there is dissemination for action, or what specific research means for practice — how it gets implemented, and how it can bring about change.
Unfortunately, what we lack are strategies and methods to achieve these ends. In the field, there’s also what is almost an institutional bias against believing that what succeeds in Des Moines can also work in Cleveland, Fontana or Prairie Junction.
Foundations, the federal government and universities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in doing research on almost everything in the field of education. Regrettably, there’s been almost no investment in dissemination systems that are known to, and easily accessible by, policymakers and practitioners. While some states have developed crowd-sourcing websites for teachers, most lack essential information about things like effect sizes, costs and implementation strategies.
Here’s another aspect of the problem: To have a sophisticated research system, it is essential that we prepare educators to be sophisticated users of research and to know the right questions to ask of vendors. But most people at the policy and practitioner levels have not been trained in these skills.
As one time, the U.S. Department of Education supported the National Diffusion Network and ERIC, a clearinghouse for scholarly articles, but even those efforts were eliminated decades ago without thought as to what would replace them.
Websites have recently been developed by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, but these are rather specialized and their impacts not yet measured.
A fundamental problem inherent in the system is that programs that prepare teachers, or provide educators with professional development, rarely mention even those resources that do exist. A teacher entering the profession is often unaware of such resources. It’s hard to imagine someone entering the legal profession without knowing about Westlaw or LexisNexis, or becoming a physician unaware of Medline or PubMed. There are also journals like JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) and counterparts in almost every specialized field. The doctors we want treating us are those who keep current in their field, just as we want the teachers of our children to do so.
Perhaps rather than continuing to look for the public sector to solve this issue, a private-sector competition with philanthropic community support could offer a solution.
For instance, what if IBM’s Watson took on a major role in dissemination? A computer system that reads and processes data, Watson has been widely seen as a future solution for making medical advancements immediately available to the physicians who need them. Perhaps Watson could play a similar role in education. What if education professionals in the U.S. petitioned IBM to make education its next priority? IBM would certainly pay attention to the voices of millions of teachers and administrators, as well as college professors of education, to adopt this mission.
A system and strategy, perhaps built on the medical model, could have a huge impact— especially if it reaches into teacher training institutions and programs.
Without an investment of this sort, the nation may continue to fail generations of students who’d benefit from answers that the educators who serve them should have at hand.
Christopher T. Cross is chairman of FourPoint Education Partners.