blog posts and news stories

SREE Spring 2017 Conference Recap

Several Empirical Education team members attended the annual SREE conference in Washington, DC from March 4th - 5th. This year’s conference theme, “Expanding the Toolkit: Maximizing Relevance, Effectiveness and Rigor in Education Research,” included a variety of sessions focused on partnerships between researchers and practitioners, classroom instruction, education policy, social and emotional learning, education and life cycle transitions, and research methods. Andrew Jaciw, Chief Scientist at Empirical Education, chaired a session about Advances in Quasi-Experimental Design. Jaciw also presented a poster on developing a “systems check” for efficacy studies under development. For more information on this diagnostic approach to evaluation, watch this Facebook Live video of Andrew’s discussion of the topic.

Other highlights of the conference included Sean Reardon’s keynote address highlighting uses of “big data” in creating context and generating hypotheses in education research. Based on data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), Sean shared several striking patterns of variation in achievement and achievement gaps among districts across the country, as well as correlations between achievement gaps and socioeconomic status. Sean challenged the audience to consider how to expand this work and use this kind of “big data” to address critical questions about inequality in academic performance and education attainment. The day prior to the lecture, our CEO, Denis Newman, attended a workshop lead by Sean and colleagues that provided a detailed overview of the SEDA data and how it can be used in education research. The psychometric work to generate equivalent scores for every district in the country, the basis for his findings, was impressive and we look forward to their solving the daunting problem of extending the database to encompass individual schools.


Five-year evaluation of Reading Apprenticeship i3 implementation reported at SREE

Empirical Education has released two research reports on the scale-up and impact of Reading Apprenticeship, as implemented under one of the first cohorts of Investing in Innovation (i3) grants. The Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE) project reached approximately 2,800 teachers in five states with a program providing teacher professional development in content literacy in three disciplines: science, history, and English language arts. RAISE supported Empirical Education and our partner, IMPAQ International, in evaluating the innovation through both a randomized control trial encompassing 42 schools and a systematic study of the scale-up of 239 schools. The RCT found significant impact on student achievement in science classes consistent with prior studies. Mean impact across subjects, while positive, did not reach the .05 level of significance. The scale-up study found evidence that the strategy of building cross-disciplinary teacher teams within the school is associated with growth and sustainability of the program. Both sides of the evaluation were presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, March 6-8, 2016 in Washington DC. Cheri Fancsali (formerly of IMPAQ, now at Research Alliance for NYC Schools) presented results of the RCT. Denis Newman (Empirical) presented a comparison of RAISE as instantiated in the RCT and scale-up contexts.

You can access the reports and research summaries from the studies using the links below.
RAISE RCT research report
RAISE RCT research summary
RAISE Scale-up research report
RAISE Scale-up research summary


SREE Spring 2016 Conference Presentations

We are excited to be presenting two topics at the annual Spring Conference of The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) next week. Our first presentation addresses the problem of using multiple pieces of evidence to support decisions. Our second presentation compares the context of an RCT with schools implementing the same program without those constraints. If you’re at SREE, we hope to run into you, either at one of these presentations (details below) or at one of yours.

Friday, March 4, 2016 from 3:30 - 5PM
Roosevelt (“TR”) - Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Ballroom Level

6E. Evaluating Educational Policies and Programs
Evidence-Based Decision-Making and Continuous Improvement

Chair: Robin Wisniewski, RTI International

Does “What Works”, Work for Me?: Translating Causal Impact Findings from Multiple RCTs of a Program to Support Decision-Making
Andrew P. Jaciw, Denis Newman, Val Lazarev, & Boya Ma, Empirical Education

Saturday, March 5, 2016 from 10AM - 12PM
Culpeper - Fairmont Hotel, Ballroom Level

Session 8F: Evaluating Educational Policies and Programs & International Perspectives on Educational Effectiveness
The Challenge of Scale: Evidence from Charters, Vouchers, and i3

Chair: Ash Vasudeva, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Comparing a Program Implemented under the Constraints of an RCT and in the Wild
Denis Newman, Valeriy Lazarev, & Jenna Zacamy, Empirical Education


Conference Season 2015

Empirical researchers are traveling all over the country this conference season. Come meet our researchers as we discuss our work at the following events. If you plan to attend any of these, please get in touch so we can schedule a time to speak with you, or come by to see us at our presentations.


We are pleased to announce that we will have our fifth appearance at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP). Join us in the afternoon on Friday, February 27th at the Marriott Wardman Park, Washington DC as Empirical’s Senior Research Scientist Valeriy Lazarev and CEO Denis Newman present on Methods of Teacher Evaluation in Concurrent Session 7. Denis will also be the acting discussant and chair on Friday morning at 8am in Session 4.07 titled Preparation/Certification and Evaluation of Leaders/Teachers.


Attendees of this spring’s Society for Research on Effectiveness (SREE) Conference, held in Washington, DC March 5-7, will have the opportunity to discuss instructional strategies and programs to improve mathematics with Empirical Education’s Chief Scientist Andrew P. Jaciw. The presentation, Assessing Impacts of Math in Focus, a ‘Singapore Math’ Program for American Schools, will take place on Friday, March 6 at 1pm in the Park Hyatt Hotel, Ballroom Level Gallery 3.


This year’s 70th annual conference for ASCD will take place in Houston, TX on March 21-23. We invite you to schedule a meeting with CEO Denis Newman while he’s there.


We will again be presenting at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Join the Empirical Education team in Chicago, Illinois from April 16-20, 2015. Our presentations will cover research under the Division H (Research, Evaluation, and Assessment in Schools) Section 2 symposium: Program Evaluation in Schools.

  1. Formative Evaluation on the Process of Scaling Up Reading Apprenticeship Authors: Jenna Lynn Zacamy, Megan Toby, Andrew P. Jaciw, and Denis Newman
  2. The Evaluation of Internet-based Reading Apprenticeship Improving Science Education (iRAISE) Authors: Megan Toby, Jenna Lynn Zacamy, Andrew P. Jaciw, and Denis Newman

We look forward to seeing you at our sessions to discuss our research. As soon as we have the schedule for these presentations, we will post them here. As has become tradition, we plan to host yet another of our popular AERA receptions. Details about the reception will follow in the months to come.


Getting Different Results from the Same Program in Different Contexts

The spring 2014 conference of the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness (SREE) gave us much food for thought concerning the role of replication of experimental results in social science research. If two research teams get the same result from experiments on the same program, that gives us confidence that the original result was not a fluke or somehow biased.

But in his keynote, John Ioannidis of Stanford showed that even in medical research, where the context can be more tightly controlled, replication very often fails—researchers get different results. The original finding may have been biased, for example, through the tendency to suppress null findings where no positive effect was found and over-report large, but potentially spurious results. Replication of a result over the long run helps us to get past the biases. Though not as glamorous as discovery, replication is fundamental to science, and educational science is no exception.

In the course of the conference, I was reminded that the challenge to conducting replication work is, in a sense, compounded in social science research. “Effect heterogeneity”—finding different results in different contexts—is common for many legitimate reasons. For instance, experimental controls seldom get placebos. They receive the program already in place, often referred to as “business as usual,” and this can vary across experiments of the same intervention and contribute to different results. Also, experiments of the same program carried out in different contexts are likely to be adapted given demands or affordances of the situation, and flexible implementation may lead to different results. The challenge is to disentangle differences in effects that give insight into how programs are adapted in response to conditions, from bias in results that John Ioannidis considered. In other fields (e.g., the “hard sciences”), less context dependency and more-robust effects may make it easier to diagnose when variation in findings is illegitimate. In education, this may be more challenging and reminds me why educational research is in many ways the ‘hardest science’ of all, as David Berliner has emphasized in the past.

Once separated from distortions of bias and properly differentiated from the usual kind of “noise” or random error, differences in effects can actually be leveraged to better understand how and for whom programs work. Building systematic differences in conditions into our research designs can be revealing. Such efforts should, however, be considered with the role of replication in mind—an approach to research that purposively builds in heterogeneity, in a sense, seeks to find where impacts don’t replicate, but for good reason. Non-reproducibility in this case is not haphazard, it is purposive.

What are some approaches to leveraging and understanding effect heterogeneity? We envision randomized trials where heterogeneity is built into the design by comparing different versions of a program or implementing in diverse settings across which program effects are hypothesized to vary. A planning phase of an RCT would allow discussions with experts and stakeholders about potential drivers of heterogeneity. Pertinent questions to address during this period include: what are the attributes of participants and settings across which we expect effects to vary and why? Under which conditions and how do we expect program implementation to change? Hypothesizing which factors will moderate effects before the experiment is conducted would add credibility to results if they corroborate the theory. A thoughtful approach of this sort can be contrasted with the usual approach whereby differential effects of program are explored as afterthoughts, with the results carrying little weight.

Building in conditions for understanding effect heterogeneity will have implications for experimental design. Increasing variation in outcomes affects statistical power and the sensitivity of designs to detect effects. We will need a better understanding of the parameters affecting precision of estimates. At Empirical, we have started using results from several of our experiments to explore parameters affecting sensitivity of tests for detecting differential impact. For example, we have been documenting the variation across schools in differences in performance depending on student characteristics such as individual SES, gender, and LEP status. This variation determines how precisely we are able to estimate the average difference between student subgroups in the impact of a program.

Some may feel that introducing heterogeneity to better understand conditions for observing program effects is going down a slippery slope. Their thinking is that it is better to focus on program impacts averaged across the study population and to replicate those effects across conditions; and that building sources of variation into the design may lead to loose interpretations and loss of rigor in design and analysis. We appreciate the cautionary element of this position. However, we believe that a systematic study of how a program interacts with conditions can be done in a disciplined way without giving up the usual strategies for ensuring the validity of results.

We are excited about the possibility that education research is entering a period of disciplined scientific inquiry to better understand how differences in students, contexts, and programs interact, with the hope that the resulting work will lead to greater opportunity and better fit of program solutions to individuals.


We Turned 10!

Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us, happy birthday to Empirical Education, happy birthday to us!

This month we turn 10 years old! We can’t think of a better way to celebrate than with all of our friends at a birthday party at AERA next month.

If you aren’t able to attend our birthday party, we’ll also be presenting at SREE this week and at AERA next month.

Research Topics will include:

We look forward to seeing you at our sessions to discuss our research.

Pictures from the party are on our facebook page, but here’s a sneak peek.


Study of Alabama STEM Initiative Finds Positive Impacts

On February 21, 2012 the U.S. Department of Education released the final report of an experiment that Empirical Education has been working on for the last six years. The report, titled Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) is now available on the Institute of Education Sciences website. The Alabama State Department of Education held a press conference to announce the findings, attended by Superintendent of Education Bice, staff of AMSTI, along with educators, students, and co-principal investigator of the study, Denis Newman, CEO of Empirical Education. The press release issued by the Alabama State Department of Education and a WebEx presentation provide more detail on the study’s findings.

AMSTI was developed by the state of Alabama and introduced in 2002 with the goal of improving mathematics and science achievement in the state’s K-12 schools. Empirical Education was primarily responsible for conducting the study—including the design, data collection, analysis, and reporting—under its subcontract with the Regional Education Lab, Southeast (the study was initiated through a research grant to Empirical). Researchers from Academy of Education Development, Abt Associates, and ANALYTICA made important contributions to design, analysis and data collection.

The findings show that after one year, students in the 41 AMSTI schools experienced an impact on mathematics achievement equivalent to 28 days of additional student progress over students receiving conventional mathematics instruction. The study found, after one year, no difference for science achievement. It also found that AMSTI had an impact on teachers’ active learning classroom practices in math and science that, according to the theory of action posited by AMSTI, should have an impact on achievement. Further exploratory analysis found effects for student achievement in both mathematics and science after two years. The study also explored reading achievement, where it found significant differences between the AMSTI and control groups after one year. Exploration of differential effect for student demographic categories found consistent results for gender, socio-economic status, and pretest achievement level for math and science. For reading, however, the breakdown by student ethnicity suggests a differential benefit.

Just about everybody at Empirical worked on this project at one point or another. Besides the three of us (Newman, Jaciw and Zacamy) who are listed among the authors, we want to acknowledge past and current employees whose efforts made the project possible: Jessica Cabalo, Ruthie Chang, Zach Chin, Huan Cung, Dan Ho, Akiko Lipton, Boya Ma, Robin Means, Gloria Miller, Bob Smith, Laurel Sterling, Qingfeng Zhao, Xiaohui Zheng, and Margit Zsolnay.

With solid cooperation of the state’s Department of Education and the AMSTI team, approximately 780 teachers and 30,000 upper-elementary and middle school students in 82 schools from five regions in Alabama participated in the study. The schools were randomized into one of two categories: 1) Those who received AMSTI starting the first year, or 2) Those who received “business as usual” the first year and began participation in AMSTI the second year. With only a one-year delay before the control group entered treatment, the two-year impact was estimated using statistical techniques developed by, and with the assistance of our colleagues at Abt Associates. Academy for Education Development assisted with data collection and analysis of training and program implementation.

Findings of the AMSTI study will also be presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) Spring Conference taking place in Washington D.C. from March 8-10, 2012. Join Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, and Boya Ma on Friday March 9, 2012 from 3:00pm-4:30pm, when they will present findings of their study titled, “Locating Differential Effectiveness of a STEM Initiative through Exploration of Moderators.” A symposium on the study, including the major study collaborators, will be presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on April 15, 2012 from 2:15pm-3:45pm at the Marriott Pinnacle ⁄ Pinnacle III in Vancouver, Canada. This session will be chaired by Ludy van Broekhuizen (director of REL-SE) and will include presentations by Steve Ricks (director of AMSTI); Jean Scott (SERVE Center at UNCG); Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, Boya Ma, and Jenna Zacamy (Empirical Education); Steve Bell (Abt Associates); and Laura Gould (formerly of AED). Sean Reardon (Stanford) will serve as the discussant. A synopsis of the study will also be included in the Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development.


New RFP calls for Building Regional Research Capacity

The US Department of Education (ED) has just released the eagerly anticipated RFP for the next round of the Regional Education Laboratories (RELs). This RFP contains some very interesting departures from how the RELs have been working, which may be of interest especially to state and local educators.

For those unfamiliar with federal government organizations, the RELs are part of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (abbreviated NCEE), which is within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), part of ED. The country is divided up into ten regions, each one served by a REL—so the RFP announced today is really a call for proposals in ten different competitions. The RELs have been in existence for decades but their mission has evolved over time. For example, the previous RFP (about 6 years ago) put a strong emphasis on rigorous research, particularly randomized control trials (RCTs) leading the contractors in each of the 10 regions to greatly expand their capacity, in part by bringing in subcontractors with the requisite technical skills. (Empirical conducted or assisted with RCTs in four of the 10 regions.) The new RFP changes the focus in two essential ways.

First, one of the major tasks is building capacity for research among practitioners. Educators at the state and local levels told ED that they needed more capacity to make use of the longitudinal data systems that the ED has invested in through grants to the states. It is one thing to build the data systems. It is another thing to use the data to generate evidence that can inform decisions about policies and programs. Last month at the conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Rebecca Maynard, Commissioner of NCEE talked about building a “culture of experimentation” among practitioners and building their capacity for simpler experiments that don’t take so long and are not as expensive as those NCEE has typically contracted for. Her point was that the resulting evidence is more likely to be used if the practitioners are “up close and immediate.”

The second idea found in the RFP for the RELs is that each regional lab should work through “alliances” of state and local agencies. These alliances would cross state boundaries (at least within the region) and would provide an important part of the REL’s research agenda. The idea goes beyond having an advisory panel for the REL that requests answers to questions. The alliances are also expected to build their own capacity to answer these questions using rigorous research methods but applying them cost-effectively and opportunistically. The capacity of the alliances should outlive the support provided by the RELs. If your organization is part of an existing alliance and would like to get better at using and conducting research, there are teams being formed to go after the REL contracts that would be happy to hear from you. (If you’re not sure who to call, let us know and we’ll put you in touch with an appropriate team.)


Looking Back 35 Years to Learn about Local Experiments

With the growing interest among federal agencies in building local capacity for research, we took another look at an article by Lee Cronbach published in 1975. We found it has a lot to say about conducting local experiments and implications for generalizability. Cronbach worked for much of his career at Empirical’s neighbor, Stanford University, and his work has had a direct and indirect influence on our thinking. Some may interpret Cronbach’s work as stating that randomized trials of educational interventions have no value because of the complexity of interactions between subjects, contexts, and the experimental treatment. In any particular context, these interactions are infinitely complex, forming a “hall of mirrors” (as he famously put it, p. 119), making experimental results—which at most can address a small number of lower-order interactions—irrelevant. We don’t read it that way. Rather, we see powerful insights as well as cautions for conducting the kinds of field experiments that are beginning to show promise for providing educators with useful evidence.

We presented these ideas at the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness conference in March, building the presentation around a set of memorable quotes from the 1975 article. Here we highlight some of the main ideas.

Quote #1: “When we give proper weight to local conditions, any generalization is a working hypothesis, not a conclusion…positive results obtained with a new procedure for early education in one community warrant another community trying it. But instead of trusting that those results generalize, the next community needs its own local evaluation” (p. 125).

Practitioners are making decisions for their local jurisdiction. An experiment conducted elsewhere (including over many locales, where the results are averaged) provides a useful starting point, but not “proof” that it will or will not work in the same way locally. Experiments give us a working hypothesis concerning an effect, but it has to be tested against local conditions at the appropriate scale of implementation. This brings to mind California’s experience with class size reduction following the famous experiment in Tennessee, and how the working hypothesis corroborated through the experiment did not transfer to a different context. We also see applicability of Cronbach’s ideas in the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, where initial evidence is being taken as a warrant to scale-up intervention, but where the grants included funding for research under new conditions where implementation may head in unanticipated directions, leading to new effects.

Quote #2: “Instead of making generalization the ruling consideration in our research, I suggest that we reverse our priorities. An observer collecting data in one particular situation…will give attention to whatever variables were controlled, but he will give equally careful attention to uncontrolled conditions…. As results accumulate, a person who seeks understanding will do his best to trace how the uncontrolled factors could have caused local departures from the modal effect. That is, generalization comes late, and the exception is taken as seriously as the rule” (pp. 124-125).

Finding or even seeking out conditions that lead to variation in the treatment effect facilitates external validity, as we build an account of the variation. This should not be seen as a threat to generalizability because an estimate of average impact is not robust across conditions. We should spend some time looking at the ways that the intervention interacts differently with local characteristics, in order to determine which factors account for heterogeneity in the impact and which ones do not. Though this activity is exploratory and not necessarily anticipated in the design, it provides the basis for understanding how the treatment plays out, and why its effect may not be constant across settings. Over time, generalizations can emerge, as we compile an account of the different ways in which the treatment is realized and the conditions that suppress or accentuate its effects.

Quote #3: “Generalizations decay” (p. 122).

In the social policy arena, and especially with the rapid development of technologies, we can’t expect interventions to stay constant. And we certainly can’t expect the contexts of implementation to be the same over many years. The call for quicker turn-around in our studies is therefore necessary, not just because decision-makers need to act, but because any finding may have a short shelf life.

Cronbach, L. J. (1975). Beyond the two disciplines of scientifi­c psychology. American Psychologist, 116-127.


Conference Season 2011

Empirical researchers will again be on the road this conference season, and we’ve included a few new conference stops. Come meet our researchers as we discuss our work at the following events. If you will be present at any of these, please get in touch so we can schedule a time to speak with you, or come by to see us at our presentations.


This year, the NCES-MIS “Deep in the Heart of Data” Conference will offer more than 80 presentations, demonstrations, and workshops conducted by information system practitioners from federal, state, and local K-12 agencies.

Come by and say hello to one of our research managers, Joseph Townsend, who will be running Empirical Education’s table display at the Hilton Hotel in Austin, Texas from February 23-25th. Joe will be presenting interactive demonstrations of MeasureResults, which allows school district staff to conduct complete program evaluations online.


Attendees of this spring’s Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) Conference, held in Washington, DC March 3-5, will have the opportunity to discuss questions of generalizability with Empirical Education’s Chief Scientist, Andrew Jaciw and President, Denis Newman at two poster sessions. The first poster, entitled External Validity in the Context of RCTs: Lessons from the Causal Explanatory Tradition applies insights from Lee Cronbach to current RCT practices. In the second poster, The Use of Moderator Effects for Drawing Generalized Causal Inferences, Jaciw addresses issues in multi-site experiments. They look forward to discussing these posters both online at the conference website and in person.


We are pleased to announce that we will have our first showing this year at the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) Annual Conference. Join us in the afternoon on Friday, March 25th at the Grand Hyatt in Seattle, WA as Empirical’s research scientist, Valeriy Lazarev, presents a poster on Cost-benefit analysis of educational innovation using growth measures of student achievement.


We will again have a strong showing at the 2011 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference. Join us in festive New Orleans, April 8-12 for the final results on the efficacy of the PCI Reading Program, our qualitative findings from the first year of formative research on our MeasureResults online program evaluation tool, and more.

View our AERA presentation schedule for more details and a complete list of our participants.


This year’s SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit will take place in gorgeous San Francisco, just 45 minutes north of Empirical Education’s headquarters in the Silicon Valley. We invite you to schedule a meeting with us at the Palace Hotel from May 22-24.