What is Research-based and Who Decides?

In a climate of increased accountability, schools and districts are pushed to demonstrate that they are employing research-based strategies to improve instruction. But what makes a teaching strategy, technique, or practice “research-based”?

A commonly accepted answer defines research-based as the bar set by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). The WWC sets standards for reviewing scientifically based research designed to determine if an intervention shows a positive effect on student learning. To meet evidence standards, studies must be “well-conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that do not have problems with randomization or attrition, or regression discontinuity designs that do not have problems with attrition.”

On the Clearinghouse site, the selection is limited in terms of what interventions have passed this litmus test. Most interventions with published papers show “mixed or no discernable effects” for improvement, and all of the interventions listed cost a pretty penny. What’s a school with a limited budget to do?

Next stop: Peer-reviewed journals. In these publications, the articles feature strategies and techniques touted to improve student learning, and often the research is based on the works cited from other articles or published studies. Rarely is the evidence verified through the rigorous standards set by the WWC. I find these articles helpful and at least thought provoking, but when I think about what ideas will galvanize a school I have to ask:

  • Do educators have faith in what’s declared effective and published in a journal?
  • Do they believe in what they’ve seen work for the teacher down the hall?
  • Or do they trust what they’ve tried in their classrooms and have seen work for their students?

Perhaps we should broaden our definition of “research-based” to include researching our school environment and basing instructional decisions on our collected evidence. This data-informed approach does not include a scientific study with a control and variable group. At best, we are making an educated guess, because so many factors influence student learning.

While the task may be daunting, we can take action on our own research. Each classroom is a learning lab every day. Please note: I do not advocate reckless experimentation on children. I’m talking about teacher and administrator scientific inquiry. Get a baseline and document growth. Specify indicators of success. Implement with consistency. Then we can share the results and learn from each other. Even when facing instructional challenges, more often than not, there is nothing new under the sun. If our school is experiencing a dip in reading comprehension among students transitioning to middle school, I know that other schools are facing this issue and some school somewhere has found a strategy, practice, or technique that works.

The WWC certainly plays an important role; however, when I need a teaching strategy to use in my classroom tomorrow, I can’t limit my choices to the programs that appear on the list today. Having taught in Baltimore and Alexandria City, I know that reading comprehension can be a life or death issue. I’ve seen students struggle, and I know that in the day-to-day classroom waiting for a published study is losing time that students don’t have to waste.

My definition of “research-based” is finding what works for which students under what circumstances and determining how it can be replicated. Let’s take on the research-based challenge. Every day there is a spark of genius that shines in a classroom somewhere. Let’s find, share, and prove what really works.