What Education Researchers Can Learn From Teachers (Opinion)

Last updated: 05-28-2021

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What Education Researchers Can Learn From Teachers (Opinion)

The new question-of-the-week is:

It’s not uncommon for teachers to criticize—rightfully, I believe—a substantial amount of education research as not being helpful to us in the classroom.

Cara Jackson agreed to “guest-host” this two-part series to explore how that could change.

Cara Jackson conducts education research and evaluation on a variety of topics, including policies related to school and teacher quality and education interventions intended to improve student outcomes. She also teaches in the School of Education at American University:

The past few decades have seen an increase in the use of phrases like evidence-based education, data-driven instruction, and research on teachers (see the Google NGram below). The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in 2015, mentions the term “evidence-based” 64 times. Through the Institute of Education Sciences, the federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars annually to further develop and disseminate such evidence. And yet, research evidence is not necessarily being used by policymakers and practitioners—at least not as much as researchers would like.

Often the evidence base is developed with minimal input from the people with the most on-the-ground expertise: teachers. So when researchers ponder why their work doesn’t get used as much as they’d like, the answer isn’t just because articles tend to be behind a paywall or written in overly technical language. As the director of the Institute of Education Sciences has acknowledged, there is a disconnect between teachers’ needs and the relevance and usefulness of education research.

Teachers may feel that research—perhaps especially the large-scale quantitative research that is considered the strongest evidence under ESSA—overlooks their lived experiences in ways that undermine research relevance. If the research isn’t relevant, it’s not likely to be used, and evidence is unlikely to produce the intended benefits unless it is used by educators and education policymakers. In this series, educators and researchers describe what the research community can learn from teachers.

Christopher Harrison is the interim director of research and program evaluation for the Madison Metropolitan school district in Wisconsin. Before joining the district, he was an assistant professor at Montana State University–Billings and a researcher with the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice and the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools:

While there is a large and well-developed literature interrogating the gap between research and practice, and how it might be bridged, recent years have seen dramatic upheaval in the educational landscape. Communities across the country are engaged in renewed reckoning with structural white supremacy and economic inequity. A pandemic has disrupted virtually every aspect of our everyday lives—including our efforts to support, raise, and educate children.

Educators have, throughout this time of change, been at the forefront of the work. Districts have adopted new ways to provide community and family support. Schools have rapidly shifted to remote and hybrid instructional models, requiring markedly new and different ways of thinking about how to provide academic and social-emotional support to students. Understanding the impact of these changes—both those that prove to be ephemeral and those that are more enduring—will be the work of years.

The field is deeply entrenched in what Carl von Clausewitz termed the “fog of war.” Changing conditions have likely undermined our settled theories, models, and understandings regarding how education “works,” particularly in the current environment. Moreover, we have limited perspective on how these changes are playing out moment by moment on the ground. If researchers hope to model, describe, and evaluate the evolution taking place, they would be well-served to draw on the experience and knowledge of those operating at its forefront. That means conducting research with educators, rather than about them.

I would suggest a set of fundamental assumptions that researchers might consider as they work with teachers and leaders:

Traditional relationships between researchers and practitioners are frequently marked by inequitable power structures, with researchers positioned as “experts” who are uniquely able to direct and lead the inquiry process. Educators are often seen, at best, as junior partners in the work—at worst, they are positioned as passive subjects. Teachers and school leaders hold critical, firsthand knowledge of how the work of schools and districts is evolving, and researchers can learn from teachers and school leaders whose early and continuing collaboration may help to better refine research questions and develop conceptual frameworks.

In the last year, remote learning, hybrid models, and concurrent teaching have heralded a significant expansion of the workload that teachers and school leaders face, without substantial increase in resources or organizational capacity. It is more incumbent upon researchers than ever to ensure that their work presents some direct benefit to educators, rather than just asking for scarce time, effort, and attention.

Finally, researchers hoping to build mutually beneficial and sustainable relationships with educators should consider how they can share the work of translating research findings into programs, practices, and policy. Researchers can actively support that process by providing ongoing consultation, facilitating professional development, or even pursuing longer-term co-development partnerships with educators.

In meetings with my district colleagues over the last several months—as we have navigated the challenges of the pandemic, tried to learn from and improve upon remote learning, and reconsidered what it means to fully support our students and families—one idea has been a constant: In the end, it will not be enough for us to return to a “normal” that fundamentally did not work for everyone in our community. It is my hope that my research colleagues might consider something similar, as we think about what it will mean to emerge from our recent experiences into a more collaborative and impactful community of education research and practice.

K. Renae Pullen has been an educator for over 20 years. She is the recipient of the 2008 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching for Louisiana and she currently is a science specialist for the Caddo Parish public schools in Shreveport, La.:

Many education researchers write about the importance of educators taking an asset-based approach when working with students. Our students bring their experiences, knowledge, cultures, languages, and more to our classrooms every day. Asset-based practices seek to unlock students’ diverse experiences and expertise. This can lead to richer, more robust learning experiences.

Unfortunately, researchers don’t always take an asset-based approach with teachers. Teachers are skilled, knowledgeable professionals who have expertise and wisdom from practice that can be helpful to education researchers and research partnerships. They understand how their students learn and can respond to their needs and are passionate about teaching and learning. What else should researchers know about teachers?

Teachers seek communities so they can learn together. Teachers are not just dedicated to improving their practices and implementing high-quality instruction, they are dedicated to growing and learning professionally so they can improve student outcomes. They want professional learning experiences that feel more connected to what is happening in their own classrooms.

However, for many, that may not look like traditional professional development, which can often feel disconnected from what they do every day. For that reason, teachers often seek support from colleagues within their community as well as online, and this is often done during their personal time. They develop theirpersonal learning networks so they can ask questions, unpack research, collaborate, explore equitable instructional approaches, and share successes and areas of refinement in a space that is low stakes and nonevaluative. Teachers want to hone their craft, and they want to do it in a way that will improve their students’ academic endeavors and their lives.

Teachers mobilize their school community. Facilitating and organizing around a common goal is something teachers do inside and outside of their classrooms. They build relationships with their students, families, and community partners. Whether teachers are coordinating a family learning night, organizing a school fair, or fundraising, they navigate and negotiate within their school communities to develop partnerships that support classroom learning. Moreover, theywork together to find solutions for their school communities during times of crisis. Teachers are often positive influencers in their communities and outspoken champions for their students and schoolsas their voice and autonomy seem to erode.

Teachers want data and evidence that matter. They want information that willimprove their practice and help the students in their classrooms. Unfortunately, they can be overwhelmed by what the data says or what the research suggests. The data they disaggregate is often disconnected from their students or curriculum, and the research is often unattainable or difficult to implement in their classrooms. It is essential to understand that this does not mean teachers are unwilling to analyze data or research. They are willing and more than capable. The caveat is they want access to the data and research that impact their students and school community and they want to engage in this work in professional, respectful ways.

Teachers often yearn to be catalysts for change, and they have the capacity and influence within their school communities to be that change. Teachers cultivate relationships to support learning and are fierce advocates for the profession. Teachers have knowledge, experiences, and tools in their teacher toolbox that researchers should leverage. Education researchers should recognize teachers are professionals who seek collaborative learning opportunities to advocate evidence-based practices that will benefit their students. Indeed, classroom teachers are professional partners from whom researchers can learn and collaborate.

Callie Lowenstein began her career in international education research in Ghana, India, and Latin America before returning to the U.S. to teach in dual-language public schools in N.Y.C. and Oakland, Calif. She currently supports teacher education programs with Deans for Impact:

The year I taught 1st grade we were growing a new school, bound in a thicket of constraints and institutional design flaws. Even with a talented teaching team and strong leadership, there were so many unmet needs, so many unsolved questions to be answered, it was trial by fire just to get through the fall.

I remember Tania looking blankly at the page, then carefully penning an incomprehensible string of letters—imitating writing to hide her uncertainty. The bottleneck of special education evaluations in the early grades meant many children in our P–2 spent weeks—if not months, even years—without the supports they needed.

I remember learning that we elementary school teachers received only half the preparation time allotted for lesson planning each day, compared with our colleagues in the upper grades—despite teaching every subject, a new lesson every period of every day.

And I remember the students crawling—so much crawling!—and it wasn’t until later that I learned that N.Y.C. was unique in its late kindergarten cutoff date, so that most of my 1st graders were still just 5 when they began the school year.

That fall, a visitor from a local university came into our classrooms one afternoon and asked all manner of questions about instructional choices and curricular models—but she seemed unaware of the multitude of first-order challenges shaping the choices available to us. Fundamental elements of school dysfunction that had huge impacts on the learning experiences of students weren’t on her radar.

She was asking the wrong questions.

This is by no means to say that formal research does not have an important role to play. But beyond the schoolhouse door, sometimes it’s hard to see what is actually going on—and in particular to know which questions would be the most fruitful to answer, to best improve schools for our communities and the educators who serve them.

Teachers have unique understandings not only of our students and classes but also of how systemic design flaws and features impact the actual work of educating.

That fall, I was asking myself: How can we triage and streamline the special education evaluation process so that early-grade classrooms have all the scaffolds they need? How do we design a school day—or year—that supports all teachers with the time and structure to do their best work? What does it mean to align to national standards when our kindergartners are nearly 10 percent younger than the national average?

Teachers and school leaders are often solicited for their input only well into the research process—for interviews or focus groups, for reviewing and piloting a program’s curriculum. Such consultations do indeed hold great value. But the greatest value we have to offer is our insights into which questions we need to be investigating more rigorously in the first place.

From our vantage point in the school building itself, classroom educators are attuned to the ways that interventions—on the child, school, district, and national levels—affect our instruction and affect our students. And while we are certainly keen to help hammer out the finer points of implementation, to support more iterative cycles of piloting and refining intervention design, it is a missed opportunity not to engage educator voices at the very outset, when the research agenda is still being envisioned.

We need a rework of the research process, in which the norm is that educators are involved from the get go—in the brainstorming, the ideation. In which the education research agenda itself is co-constructed by academics and practitioners.

So to start, if you are a member of a working group on literacy research—please, invite a teacher to join. Are you chairing a panel exploring district-level reforms? Ask an educator to participate. Mulling over a few research ideas about individualized education programs? Come spend a day in a school and stay for lunch.

Sure, there’s no such thing as a bad question—but without educators at the table to generate and refine them, we risk missing out on asking the ones that matter most.

Thanks to Cara, Christopher, K. Renae, and Callie for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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