The Potential of Research Evidence: A Critical Juncture in Education

Through No Child Left Behind to the onset of the Common Core State Standards and other federal initiatives such as Investing in Innovation (i3), we are experiencing an increased push toward the use of evidence in decision making that affects our nation’s schools. There has been steadily mounting pressure for educational improvement and a resulting interest in available research evidence that will help to advance that goal. But there is little consensus among educators about what is meant by evidence.

Emerging research suggests educators tend to recycle approaches and base decisions on a disparate array of evidence. As a result, there is wide variation in how evidence is accessed and used as a basis for decisions that have an impact on education in America at the local and policy levels. In addition, there is little agreement around what is meant by “evidence,” and there are relatively few studies of how that evidence is acquired and used.

This lack of clarity and underdeveloped empirical base are serious concerns when we consider the critical and pervasive impact of our educational system and the educational inequities that exist throughout the United States. Our new book published by Springer, Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill, aims to explore and address this gap in our knowledge base.

As we move forward, our educational systems will need to more clearly define what is valued and recognized as evidence.

Despite decades of attention from practitioners, policymakers, and researchers, perhaps one contributing factor to our ongoing educational inequities is that our systems typically operate independently, drawing on different types of “evidence” to make decisions. The result: reforms at all levels of the system are inconsistent and reactive, with a narrow understanding of the full body of available evidence and a focus on short-term survival at the expense of more complex, long-term solutions. All too often, reformers fail to recognize and embrace the idea that decisions, actions, inactions, and the evidence used in making decisions are mutually influential and interdependent. From both a research and practical standpoint, understanding the process of effectively defining and applying evidence requires knowledge of a particular problem or set of problems; identifying the policies or strategies needed to address these issues; clarity about how to implement these policies or strategies; recognition of who must be involved in the implementation process; and a clear understanding of why action is required.

This is a potentially transformative time in education, with many changes underway in standards, assessment methods, and modalities. Evidence, in all its varied configurations, will be even more important in the coming decades, and a better understanding of how it is defined, accessed, and used has the potential to provide answers to seemingly intractable problems we have faced in education for many years.

As we move forward, our educational systems will need to more clearly define what is valued and recognized as evidence. This will likely necessitate a fundamental shift to a holistic approach that leverages system-wide networks and draws upon the collective knowledge, expertise, and output of policymakers, practitioners, and academics to generate a cohesive body of reliable research evidence. Ultimately, we must incentivize the formation and growth of collaborative knowledge networks that comprise the muscle of individual human capital and the connective tissue of social relationships.