blog posts and news stories

Classrooms and Districts: Breaking Down Silos in Education Research and Evidence

I just got back from Edsurge’s Fusion conference. The theme, aimed at classroom and school leaders, was personalizing classroom instruction. This is guided by learning science, which includes brain development and the impact of trauma, as well as empathetic caregiving, as Pamela Cantor beautifully explained in her keynote. It also leads to detailed characterizations of learner variability being explored at Digital Promise by Vic Vuchic’s team, which is providing teachers with mappings between classroom goals and tools and strategies that can address learners who vary in background, cognitive skills, and socio-emotional character.

One of the conference tracks that particularly interested me was the workshops and discussions under “Research & Evidence”. Here is where I experienced a disconnect between Empirical ’s research policy-oriented work interpreting ESSA and Fusion’s focus on improving the classroom.

  • The Fusion conference is focused at the classroom level, where teachers along with their coaches and school leaders are making decisions about personalizing the instruction to students. They advocate basing decisions on research and evidence from the learning sciences.
  • Our work, also using research and evidence, has been focused on the school district level where decisions are about procurement and implementation of educational materials including the technical infrastructure needed, for example, for edtech products.

While the classroom and district levels have different needs and resources and look to different areas of scientific expertise, they need not form conceptual silos. But the differences need to be understood.

Consider the different ways we look at piloting a new product.

  • The Digital Promise edtech pilot framework attempts to move schools toward a more planful approach by getting them to identify and quantify the problem for which the product being piloted could be a solution. The success in the pilot classrooms is evaluated by the teachers, where detailed understandings by the teacher don’t call for statistical comparisons. Their framework points to tools such as the RCE Coach that can help with the statistics to support local decisions.
  • Our work looks at pilots differently. Pilots are excellent for understanding implementability and classroom acceptance (and working with developers to improve the product), but even with rapid cycle tools, the quantitative outcomes are usually not available in time for local decisions. We are more interested in how data can be accumulated nationally from thousands of pilots so that teachers and administrators can get information on which products are likely to work in their classrooms given their local demographics and resources. This is where review sites like Edsurge product reviews or Noodle’s ProcureK12 could be enhanced with evidence about for whom, and under what conditions, the products work best. With over 5,000 edtech products, an initial filter to help choose what a school should pilot will be necessary.

A framework that puts these two approaches together is promulgated in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA defines four levels of evidence, based on the strength of the causal inference about whether the product works. More than just a system for rating the scientific rigor of a study, it is a guide to developing a research program with a basis in learning science. The base level says that the program must have a rationale. This brings us back to the Digital Promise edtech pilot framework needing teachers to define their problem. The ESSA level 1 rationale is what the pilot framework calls for. Schools must start thinking through what the problem is that needs to be solved and why a particular product is likely to be a solution. This base level sets up the communication between educators and developers about not just whether the product works in the classroom, but how to improve it.

The next level in ESSA, called “correlational,” is considered weak evidence, because it shows only that the product has “promise” and is worth studying with a stronger method. However, this level is far more useful as a way for developers to gather information about which parts of the program are driving student results, and which patterns of usage may be detrimental. Schools can see if there is an amount of usage that maximizes the value of the product (rather than depending solely on the developer’s rationale). This level 2 calls for piloting the program and examining quantitative results. To get correlational results, the pilot must have enough students and may require going beyond a single school. This is a reason that we usually look for a district’s involvement in a pilot.

The top two levels in the ESSA scheme involve comparisons of students and teachers who use the product to those who do not. These are the levels where it begins to make sense to combine a number of studies of the same product from different districts in a statistical process called meta-analysis so we can start to make generalizations. At these levels, it is very important to look beyond just the comparison of the program group and the control group and gather information on the characteristics of schools, teachers, and students who benefit most (and least) from the product. This is the evidence of most value to product review sites.

When it comes to characterizing schools, teachers, and students, the “classroom” and the “district” approach have different, but equally important, needs.

  • The learner variability project has very fine-grained categories that teachers are able to establish for the students in their class.
  • For generalizable evidence, we need characteristics that are routinely collected by the schools. To make data analysis for efficacy studies a common occurrence, we have to avoid expensive surveys and testing of students that are used only for the research. Furthermore, the research community must reach consensus on a limited number of variables that will be used in research. Fortunately, another aspect of ESSA is the broadening of routine data collection for accountability purposes, so that information on improvements in socio-emotional learning or school climate will be usable in studies.

Edsurge and Digital Promise are part of a west coast contingent of researchers, funders, policymakers, and edtech developers that has been discussing these issues. We look forward to continuing this conversation within the framework provided by ESSA. When we look at the ESSA levels as not just vertical but building out from concrete classroom experience to more abstract and general results from thousands of school districts, then learning science and efficacy research are combined. This strengthens our ability to serve all students, teachers, and school leaders.

2018-10-08

The Rebel Alliance is Growing

The rebellion against the old NCLB way of doing efficacy research is gaining force. A growing community among edtech developers, funders, researchers, and school users has been meeting in an attempt to reach a consensus on an alternative built on ESSA.

This is being assisted by openness in the directions currently being pursued by IES. In fact, we are moving into a new phase marked by two-way communication with the regime. While the rebellion hasn’t yet handed over its lightsabers, it is encouraged by the level of interest from prominent researchers.

From these ongoing discussions, there have been some radical suggestions inching toward consensus. A basic idea now being questioned is this:

The difference between the average of the treatment group and the average of the control group is a valid measure of effectiveness.

There are two problems with this:

  1. In schools, there’s no “placebo” or something that looks like a useful program but is known to have zero effectiveness. Whatever is going on in the schools, or classes, or with teachers and students in the control condition has some usefulness or effectiveness. The usefulness of the activities in the control classes or schools may be greater than the activities being evaluated in the study, or may be not as useful. The study may find that the “effectiveness” of the activities being studied is positive, negative, or too small to be discerned statistically by the study. In any case, the size (negative or positive) of the effect is determined as much by what’s being done in the control group as the treatment group.
  2. Few educational activities have the same level of usefulness for all teachers and students. Looking at only the average will obscure the differences. For example, we ran a very large study for the U.S. Department of Education of a STEM program where we found, on average, the program was effective. What the department didn’t report was that it only worked for the white kids, not the black kids. The program increased instead of reducing the existing achievement gap. If you are considering adopting this STEM program, the impact on the different subgroups is relevant–a high minority school district may want to avoid it. Also, to make the program better, the developers need to know where it works and where it doesn’t. Again, the average impact is not just meaningless but also can be misleading.

A solution to the overuse of the average difference from studies is to conduct a lot more studies. The price the ED paid for our large study could have paid for 30 studies of the kind we are now conducting in the same state of the same program; in 10% of the time of the original study. If we had 10 different studies for each program, where studies are conducted in different school districts with different populations and levels of resources, the “average” across these studies start to make sense. Importantly, the average across these 10 studies for each of the subgroups will give a valid picture of where, how, and with which students and teachers the program tends to work best. This kind of averaging used in research is called meta-analysis and allows many small differences found across studies to build on the power of each study to generate reliable findings.

If developers or publishers of the products being used in schools took advantage of their hundreds of implementations to gather data, and if schools would be prepared to share student data for this research, we could have researcher findings that both help schools decide what will likely work for them and help developers improve their products.

2018-09-21

A Rebellion Against the Current Research Regime

Finally! There is a movement to make education research more relevant to educators and edtech providers alike.

At various conferences, we’ve been hearing about a rebellion against the “business as usual” of research, which fails to answer the question of, “Will this product work in this particular school or community?” For educators, the motive is to find edtech products that best serve their students’ unique needs. For edtech vendors, it’s an issue of whether research can be cost-effective, while still identifying a product’s impact, as well as helping to maximize product/market fit.

The “business as usual” approach against which folks are rebelling is that of the U.S. Education Department (ED). We’ll call it the regime. As established by the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the regime anointed the randomized control trial (or RCT) as the gold standard for demonstrating that a product, program, or policy caused an outcome.

Let us illustrate two ways in which the regime fails edtech stakeholders.

First, the regime is concerned with the purity of the research design, but not whether a product is a good fit for a school given its population, resources, etc. For example, in an 80-school RCT that the Empirical team conducted under an IES contract on a statewide STEM program, we were required to report the average effect, which showed a small but significant improvement in math scores (Newman et al., 2012). The table on page 104 of the report shows that while the program improved math scores on average across all students, it didn’t improve math scores for minority students. The graph that we provide here illustrates the numbers from the table and was presented later at a research conference.

bar graph representing math, science, and reading scores for minority vs non-minority students

IES had reasons couched in experimental design for downplaying anything but the primary, average finding, however this ignores the needs of educators with large minority student populations, as well as of edtech vendors that wish to better serve minority communities.

Our RCT was also expensive and took many years, which illustrates the second failing of the regime: conventional research is too slow for the fast-moving innovative edtech development cycles, as well as too expensive to conduct enough research to address the thousands of products out there.

These issues of irrelevance and impracticality were highlighted last year in an “academic symposium” of 275 researchers, edtech innovators, funders, and others convened by the organization now called Jefferson Education Exchange (JEX). A popular rallying cry coming out of the symposium is to eschew the regime’s brand of research and begin collecting product reviews from front-line educators. This would become a Consumer Reports for edtech. Factors associated with differences in implementation are cited as a major target for data collection. Bart Epstein, JEX’s CEO, points out: “Variability among and between school cultures, priorities, preferences, professional development, and technical factors tend to affect the outcomes associated with education technology. A district leader once put it to me this way: ‘a bad intervention implemented well can produce far better outcomes than a good intervention implemented poorly’.”

Here’s why the Consumer Reports idea won’t work. Good implementation of a program can translate into gains on outcomes of interest, such as improved achievement, reduction in discipline referrals, and retention of staff, but only if the program is effective. Evidence that the product caused a gain on the outcome of interest is needed or else all you measure is the ease of implementation and student engagement. You wouldn’t know if the teachers and students were wasting their time with a product that doesn’t work.

We at Empirical Education are joining the rebellion. The guidelines for research on edtech products we recently prepared for the industry and made available here is a step toward showing an alternative to the regime while adopting important advances in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

We share the basic concern that established ways of conducting research do not answer the basic question that educators and edtech providers have: “Is this product likely to work in this school?” But we have a different way of understanding the problem. From years of working on federal contracts (often as a small business subcontractor), we understand that ED cannot afford to oversee a large number of small contracts. When there is a policy or program to evaluate, they find it necessary to put out multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts. These large contracts suit university researchers, who are not in a rush, and large research companies that have adjusted their overhead rates and staffing to perform on these contracts. As a consequence, the regime becomes focused on the perfection in the design, conduct, and reporting of the single study that is intended to give the product, program, or policy a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

photo of students in a classroom on computers

There’s still a need for a causal research design that can link conditions such as resources, demographics, or teacher effectiveness with educational outcomes of interest. In research terminology, these conditions are called “moderators,” and in most causal study designs, their impact can be measured.

The rebellion should be driving an increase the number of studies by lowering their cost and turn-around time. Given our recent experience with studies of edtech products, this reduction can reach a factor of 100. Instead of one study that costs $3 million and takes 5 years, think in terms of a hundred studies that cost $30,000 each and are completed in less than a month. If for each product, there are 5 to 10 studies that are combined, they would provide enough variation and numbers of students and schools to detect differences in kinds of schools, kinds of students, and patterns of implementation so as to find where it works best. As each new study is added, our understanding of how it works and with whom improves.

It won’t be enough to have reviews of product implementation. We need an independent measure of whether—when implemented well—the intervention is capable of a positive outcome. We need to know that it can make (i.e., cause) a difference AND under what conditions. We don’t want to throw out research designs that can detect and measure effect sizes, but we should stop paying for studies that are slow and expensive.

Our guidelines for edtech research detail multiple ways that edtech providers can adapt research to better work for them, especially in the era of ESSA. Many of the key recommendations are consistent with the goals of the rebellion:

  • The usage data collected by edtech products from students and teachers gives researchers very precise information on how well the program was implemented in each school and class. It identifies the schools and classes where implementation met the threshold for which the product was designed. This is a key to lowering cost and turn-around time.
  • ESSA offers four levels of evidence which form a developmental sequence, where the base level is based on existing learning science and provides a rationale for why a school should try it. The next level looks for a correlation between an important element in the rationale (measured through usage of that part of the product) and a relevant outcome. This is accepted by ESSA as evidence of promise, informs the developers how the product works, and helps product marketing teams get the right fit to the market. a pyramid representing the 4 levels of ESSA
  • The ESSA level that provides moderate evidence that the product caused the observed impact requires a comparison group matched to the students or schools that were identified as the users. The regime requires researchers to report only the difference between the user and comparison groups on average. Our guidelines insist that researchers must also estimate the extent to which an intervention is differentially effective for different demographic categories or implementation conditions.

From the point of view of the regime, nothing in these guidelines actually breaks the rules and regulations of ESSA’s evidence standards. Educators, developers, and researchers should feel empowered to collect data on implementation, calculate subgroup impacts, and use their own data to generate evidence sufficient for their own decisions.

A version of this article was published in the Edmarket Essentials magazine.

2018-05-09

Updated Research Guidelines Will Improve Education Technology Products and Provide More Value to Schools

Recommendations include 16 best practices for the design, implementation, and reporting of Usable Evidence for Educators

Palo Alto, CA (April 25, 2018) – Empirical Education Inc. and the Education Technology Industry Network (ETIN) of SIIA released an important update to the “Guidelines for Conducting and Reporting Edtech Impact Research in U.S. K-12 Schools” today.

Authored by Empirical Education researchers, Drs. Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, and Valeriy Lazarev, the Guidelines detail 16 best practices for the design, implementation, and reporting of efficacy research of education technology. Recommendations range from completing the product’s logic model before fielding it to disseminating a study’s results in accessible and non-technical language.

The Guidelines were first introduced in July 2017 at ETIN’s Edtech Impact Symposium to address the changing demand for research. They served to address new challenges driven by the accelerated pace of edtech development and product releases, the movement of new software to the cloud, and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The authors committed to making regular updates to keep pace with technical advances in edtech and research methods.

“Our collaboration with ETIN brought the right mix of practical expertise to this important document,” said Denis Newman, CEO of Empirical Education and lead author of the Guidelines. “ETIN provided valuable expertise in edtech marketing, policy, and development. With over a decade of experience evaluating policies, programs, and products for the U.S. Department of Education, major research organizations, and publishers, Empirical Education brought a deep understanding of how studies are traditionally performed and how they can be improved in the future. Our experience with our Evidence as a Service™ offering to investors and developers of edtech products also informed the guidelines.”

The current edition advocates for analysis of usage patterns in the data collected routinely by edtech applications. These patterns help to identify classrooms and schools with adequate implementation and lead to lower-cost faster turn-around research. So rather than investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single large-scale study, developers should consider multiple small-scale studies. The authors point to the advantages of looking at subgroup analysis to better understand how and for whom the product works best, thus more directly answering common educator questions. Issues with quality of implementation are addressed in greater depth, and the visual design of the Guidelines has been refined for improved readability.

“These guidelines may spark a rebellion against the research business as usual, which doesn’t help educators know whether an edtech product will work for their specific populations. They also provide a basis for schools and developers to partner to make products better,” said Mitch Weisburgh, Managing Partner of Academic Business Advisors, LLC and President of ETIN, who has moderated panels and webinars on edtech research.

Empirical Education, in partnership with a variety of organizations, is conducting webinars to help explain the updates to the Guidelines, as well as to discuss the importance of these best practices in the age of ESSA. The updated Guidelines are available here: https://www.empiricaleducation.com/research-guidelines/.

2018-04-25

Need for Product Evaluations Continues to Grow

There is a growing need for evidence of the effectiveness of products and services being sold to schools. A new release of SIIA’s product evaluation guidelines is now available at the Selling to Schools website (with continued free access to SIIA members), to help guide publishers in measuring the effectiveness of the tools they are selling to schools.

It’s been almost a decade since NCLB made its call for “scientifically-based research,” but the calls for research haven’t faded away. This is because resources available to schools have diminished over that time, heightening the importance of cost benefit trade-offs in spending.

NCLB has focused attention on test score achievement, and this metric is becoming more pervasive; e.g., through a tie to teacher evaluation and through linkages to dropout risk. While NCLB fostered a compliance mentality—product specs had to have a check mark next to SBR—the need to assure that funds are not wasted is now leading to a greater interest in research results. Decision-makers are now very interested in whether specific products will be effective, or how well they have been working, in their districts.

Fortunately, the data available for evaluations of all kinds is getting better and easier to access. The U.S. Department of Education has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into state data systems. These investments make data available to states and drive the cleaning and standardizing of data from districts. At the same time, districts continue to invest in data systems and warehouses. While still not a trivial task, the ability of school district researchers to get the data needed to determine if an investment paid off—in terms of increased student achievement or attendance—has become much easier over the last decade.

The reauthorization of ESEA (i.e., NCLB) is maintaining the pressure to evaluate education products. We are still a long way from the draft reauthorization introduced in Congress becoming a law, but the initial indications are quite favorable to the continued production of product effectiveness evidence. The language has changed somewhat. Look for the phrase “evidence based”. Along with the term “scientifically-valid”, this new language is actually more sophisticated and potentially more effective than the old SBR neologism. Bob Slavin, one of the reviewers of the SIIA guidelines, says in his Ed Week blog that “This is not the squishy ‘based on scientifically-based evidence’ of NCLB. This is the real McCoy.” It is notable that the definition of “evidence-based” goes beyond just setting rules for the design of research, such as the SBR focus on the single dimension of “internal validity” for which randomization gets the top rating. It now asks how generalizable the research is or its “external validity”; i.e., does it have any relevance for decision-makers?

One of the important goals of the SIIA guidelines for product effectiveness research is to improve the credibility of publisher-sponsored research. It is important that educators see it as more than just “market research” producing biased results. In this era of reduced budgets, schools need to have tangible evidence of the value of products they buy. By following the SIIA’s guidelines, publishers will find it easier to achieve that credibility.

2011-11-12

A Conversation About Building State and Local Research Capacity

John Q Easton, director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), came to New Orleans recently to participate in the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. At one of his stops, he was the featured speaker at a meeting of the Directors of Research and Evaluation (DRE), an organization composed of school district research directors. (DRE is affiliated with AERA and was recently incorporated as a 501©(3)). John started his remarks by pointing out that for much of his career he was a school district research director and felt great affinity to the group. He introduced the directions that IES was taking, especially how it was approaching working with school systems. He spent most of the hour fielding questions and engaging in discussion with the participants. Several interesting points came out of the conversation about roles for the researchers who work for education agencies.

Historically, most IES research grant programs have been aimed at university or other academic researchers. It is noteworthy that even in a program for “Evaluation of State and Local Education Programs and Policies,” grants have been awarded only to universities and large research firms. There is no expectation that researchers working for the state or local agency would be involved in the research beyond the implementation of the program. The RFP for the next generation of Regional Education Labs (REL) contracts may help to change that. The new RFP expects the RELs to work closely with education agencies to define their research questions and to assist alliances of state and local agencies in developing their own research capacity.

Members of the audience noted that, as district directors of research, they often spend more time reviewing research proposals from students and professors at local colleges who want to conduct research in their schools, rather than actually answering questions initiated by the district. Funded researchers treat the districts as the “human subjects,” paying incentives to participants and sometimes paying for data services. But the districts seldom participate in defining the research topic, conducting the studies, or benefiting directly from the reported findings. The new mission of the RELs to build local capacity will be a major shift.

Some in the audience pointed out reasons to be skeptical that this REL agenda would be possible. How can we build capacity if research and evaluation departments across the country are being cut? In fact, very little is known about the number of state or district practitioners whose capacity for research and evaluation could be built by applying the REL resources. (Perhaps, a good first research task for the RELs would be to conduct a national survey to measure the existing capacity.)

John made a good point in reply: IES and the RELs have to work with the district leadership—not just the R&E departments—to make this work. The leadership has to have a more analytic view. They need to see the value of having an R&E department that goes beyond test administration, and is able to obtain evidence to support local decisions. By cultivating a research culture in the district, evaluation could be routinely built in to new program implementations from the beginning. The value of the research would be demonstrated in the improvements resulting from informed decisions. Without a district leadership team that values research to find out what works for the district, internal R&E departments will not be seen as an important capacity.

Some in the audience pointed out that in parallel to building a research culture in districts, it will be necessary to build a practitioner culture among researchers. It would be straightforward for IES to require that research grantees and contractors engage the district R&E staff in the actual work, not just review the research plan and sign the FERPA agreement. Practitioners ultimately hold the expertise in how the programs and research can be implemented successfully in the district, thus improving the overall quality and relevance of the research.

2011-04-20

Recognizing Success

When the Obama-Duncan administration approaches teacher evaluation, the emphasis is on recognizing success. We heard that clearly in Arne Duncan’s comments on the release of teacher value-added modeling (VAM) data for LA Unified by the LA Times. He’s quoted as saying, “What’s there to hide? In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.” Since VAM is often thought of as a method for weeding out low performing teachers, Duncan’s statement referencing success casts the use of VAM in a more positive light. Therefore we want to raise the issue here: how do you know when you’ve found success? The general belief is that you’ll recognize it when you see it. But sorting through a multitude of variables is not a straightforward process, and that’s where research methods and statistical techniques can be useful. Below we illustrate how this plays out in teacher and in program evaluation.

As we report in our news story, Empirical is participating in the Gates Foundation project called Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). This project is known for its focus on value-added modeling (VAM) of teacher effectiveness. It is also known for having collected over 10,000 videos from over 2,500 teachers’ classrooms—an astounding accomplishment. Research partners from many top institutions hope to be able to identify the observable correlates for teachers whose students perform at high levels as well as for teachers whose students do not. (The MET project tested all the students with an “alternative assessment” in addition to using the conventional state achievement tests.) With this massive sample that includes both data about the students and videos of teachers, researchers can identify classroom practices that are consistently associated with student success. Empirical’s role in MET is to build a web-based tool that enables school system decision-makers to make use of the data to improve their own teacher evaluation processes. Thus they will be able to build on what’s been learned when conducting their own mini-studies aimed at improving their local observational evaluation methods.

When the MET project recently had its “leads” meeting in Washington DC, the assembled group of researchers, developers, school administrators, and union leaders were treated to an after-dinner speech and Q&A by Joanne Weiss. Joanne is now Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, after having directed the Race to the Top program (and before that was involved in many Silicon Valley educational innovations). The approach of the current administration to teacher evaluation—emphasizing that it is about recognizing success—carries over into program evaluation. This attitude was clear in Joanne’s presentation, in which she declared an intention to “shine a light on what is working.” The approach is part of their thinking about the reauthorization of ESEA, where more flexibility is given to local decision- makers to develop solutions, while the federal legislation is more about establishing achievement goals such as being the leader in college graduation.

Hand in hand with providing flexibility to find solutions, Joanne also spoke of the need to build “local capacity to identify and scale up effective programs.” We welcome the idea that school districts will be free to try out good ideas and identify those that work. This kind of cycle of continuous improvement is very different from the idea, incorporated in NCLB, that researchers will determine what works and disseminate these facts to the practitioners. Joanne spoke about continuous improvement, in the context of teachers and principals, where on a small scale it may be possible to recognize successful teachers and programs without research methodologies. While a teacher’s perception of student progress in the classroom may be aided by regular assessments, the determination of success seldom calls for research design. We advocate for a broader scope, and maintain that a cycle of continuous improvement is just as much needed at the district and state levels. At those levels, we are talking about identifying successful schools or successful programs where research and statistical techniques are needed to direct the light onto what is working. Building research capacity at the district and state level will be a necessary accompaniment to any plan to highlight successes. And, of course, research can’t be motivated purely by the desire to document the success of a program. We have to be equally willing to recognize failure. The administration will have to take seriously the local capacity building to achieve the hoped-for identification and scaling up of successful programs.

2010-11-18

2010-2011: The Year of the VAM

If you haven’t heard about Value-Added Modeling (VAM) in relation to the controversial teacher ratings in Los Angeles and subsequent brouhaha in the world of education, chances are that you’ll hear about it in the coming year.

VAM is a family of statistical techniques for estimating the contribution of a teacher or of a school to the academic growth of students. Recently, the LA Times obtained the longitudinal test score records for all the elementary school teachers and students in LA Unified and had a RAND economist (working as an independent consultant) run the calculations. The result was a “score” for all LAUSD elementary school teachers. Note that the economist who did the calculations wrote up a technical report on how it was done and the specific questions his research was aimed at answering.

Reactions to the idea that a teacher could be evaluated using a set of test scores—in this case from the California Standards Test—were swift and divisive. The concept was denounced by the teachers’ union, with the local leader calling for a boycott. Meanwhile, the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, made headlines by commenting favorably on the idea. The LA Times quotes him as saying “What’s there to hide? In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

There is a tangle of issues here, along with exaggerations, misunderstandings, and confusion between research techniques and policy decisions. This column will address some of the issues over the coming year. We also plan to announce some of our own contributions to the VAM field in the form of project news.

The major hot-button issues include appropriate usage (e.g., for part or all of the input to merit pay decisions) and technical failings (e.g., biases in the calculations). Of course, these two issues are often linked; for example, many argue that biases may make VAM unfair for individual merit pay. The recent Brief from the Economic Policy Institute, authored by an impressive team of researchers (several our friends/mentors from neighboring Stanford), makes a well reasoned case for not using VAM as the only input to high-stakes decisions. While their arguments are persuasive with respect to VAM as the lone criterion for awarding merit pay or firing individual teachers, we still see a broad range of uses for the technique, along with the considerable challenges.

For today, let’s look at one issue that we find particularly interesting: How to handle teacher collaboration in a VAM framework. In a recent Education Week commentary, Kim Marshall argues that any use of test scores for merit pay is a losing proposition. One of the many reasons he cites is its potentially negative impact on collaboration.

A problem with an exercise like that conducted by the LA Times is that there are organizational arrangements that do not come into the calculations. For example, we find that team teaching within a grade at a school is very common. A teacher with an aptitude for teaching math may take another teacher’s students for a math period, while sending her own kids to the other teacher for reading. These informal arrangements are not part of the official school district roster. They can be recorded (with some effort) during the current year but are lost for prior years. Mentoring is a similar situation, wherein the value provided to the kids is distributed among members of their team of teachers. We don’t know how much difference collaborative or mentoring arrangements make to individual VAM scores, but one fear in using VAM in setting teacher salaries is that it will militate against productive collaborations and reduce overall achievement.

Some argue that, because VAM calculations do not properly measure or include important elements, VAM should be disqualified from playing any role in evaluation. We would argue that, although they are imperfect, VAM calculations can still be used as a component of an evaluation process. Moreover, continued improvements can be made in testing, in professional development, and in the VAM calculations themselves. In the case of collaboration, what is needed are ways that a principal can record and evaluate the collaborations and mentoring so that the information can be worked into the overall evaluation and even into the VAM calculation. In such an instance, it would be the principal at the school, not an administrator at the district central office, who can make the most productive use of the VAM calculations. With knowledge of the local conditions and potential for bias, the building leader may be in the best position to make personnel decisions.

VAM can also be an important research tool—using consistently high and/or low scores as a guide for observing classroom practices that are likely to be worth promoting through professional development or program implementations. We’ve seen VAM used this way, for example, by the research team at Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina in identifying strong and weak practices in several content areas. This is clearly a rich area for continued research.

The LA Times has helped to catapult the issue of VAM onto the national radar. It has also sparked a discussion of how school data can be used to support local decisions, which can’t be a bad thing.

2010-09-18

Making Vendor Research More Credible

The latest evidence that research can be both rigorous and relevant was the subject of an announcement that the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) made last month about their new guidelines for conducting effectiveness research. The document is aimed at SIIA members, most of whom are executives of education software and technology companies and not necessarily schooled in research methodology. The main goal in publishing the guidelines is to improve the quality—and therefore the credibility—of research sponsored by the industry. The document provides SIIA members with things to keep in mind when contracting for research or using research in marketing materials. The document also has value for educators, especially those responsible for purchasing decisions. That’s an important point that I’ll get back to.

One thing to make clear in this blog entry is that while your humble blogger (DN) is given credit as the author, the Guidelines actually came from a working group of SIIA members who put in many months of brainstorming, discussion, and review. DN’s primary contribution was just to organize the ideas, ensure they were technically accurate, and put them into easy to understand language.

Here’s a taste of some of the ideas contained in the 22 guidelines:

  • With a few exceptions, all research should be reported regardless of the result. Cherry picking just the studies with strong positive results distorts the facts and in the long run hurts credibility. One lesson that might be taken from this is that conducting several small studies may be preferable to trying to prove a product effective (or not) in a single study.

  • Always provide a link to the full report. Too often in marketing materials (including those of advocacy groups, not just publishers) a fact such as “8th grade math achievement increased from 31% in 2004 to 63% in 2005,” is offered with no citation. In this specific case, the fact was widely cited but after considerable digging could be traced back to a report described by the project director as “anecdotal”.

  • Be sure to take implementation into account. In education, all instructional programs require setting up complex systems of teacher-student interaction, which can vary in numerous ways. Issues of how research can support the process and what to do with inadequate or outright failed implementation must be understood by researchers and consumers of research.

  • Watch out for the control condition. In education there are no placebos. In almost all cases we are comparing a new program to whatever is in place. Depending on how well the existing program works, the program being evaluated may appear to have an impact or not. This calls for careful consideration of where to test a product and understandable concern by educators as to how well a particular product tested in another district will perform against what is already in place in their district.

The Guidelines are not just aimed at industry. SIIA believes that as decision-makers at schools begin to see a commitment to providing stronger research, their trust in the results will increase. It is also in the educators’ interest to review the guidelines because they provide a reference point for what actionable research should look like. Ultimately, the Guidelines provide educators with help in conducting their own research, whether it is on their own or in partnership with the education technology providers.

2010-06-01

Webinar: Uncovering ARRA’s Research Requirements

Researchers at Empirical Education provided a detailed overview of the various research themes and requirements of the ARRA stimulus initiatives with state department of education officials during their December 9 webinar entitled, “Meet Stimulus Funds’ Research Requirements with Confidence.“ The webinar gave specific examples of how states may start planning their applications and building research partnerships, as well as an overview of the ED’s current thinking about building local research capacity. The initiatives that were discussed included Race to the Top, Enhancing Education Through Technology, Investing in Innovation, Title I School Improvement Grants, and State Longitudinal Data Systems.

A follow-up webinar was broadcasted on January 20, 2010; it outlined a specific example of a program evaluation design that districts can use with existing data. The presentation can be viewed below. Stay tuned for future webinar topics on more alternative experimental research designs.

2010-01-22
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