SOE News

From the dean

In reforming schools, let's rely on evidence, not ideology

Photo of Bill McDiarmid

Bill McDiarmid


Recently, a somewhat chastened Bill Gates admitted in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley that the $2 billion his foundation invested in creating small schools had not produced the results he anticipated. Gates conceded that perhaps research was essential to shaping initiatives that will make a difference in student learning: "I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts."

Noting that the U.S. spends little on educational research, he offered an explanation that is startling to those of us in research universities: “That's partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don't think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research."

True, the majority of education schools do not conduct much research. Heirs to the normal school tradition, they focus almost solely on educator preparation. However, the reputation of research universities, like Carolina, depend significantly on their research productivity. Typically situated in academic environments boasting well-resourced research support infrastructures, these education schools must meet rigorous standards on their campuses. To gain tenure at Carolina, for instance, scholars must contribute new knowledge and discoveries or, in some disciplines, works of art that their peers around the world judge to be distinctive contributions to our understanding of ourselves and our world. 

Clearly, we are failing to communicate our findings through channels and in language to those who are shaping the current educational landscape.

Philanthropists, foundations, financiers, and the Obama Administration are funneling substantial resources to a range of educational reforms. Few of these ventures, however, are grounded in rigorous empirical data. Rather, like the Gates Small School Initiative, they tend to be “good ideas” that have strong intuitive appeal. Anxious to make a difference, the reformers, like Mr. Gates, want to invest in new ideas, not research.

Sometimes these “good ideas” pan out. More often, they don’t deliver the expected results. For instance, recent national research has shown that, although a few charter schools have produced better student learning results than nearby regular public schools, most have done no better and some even worse than non-charter peers. This isn’t to say charters don’t have a place in the educational landscape, particularly those that serve children from impoverished communities. Rather, many have not delivered on their promises. Despite the evidence, policymakers continue to shift resources from non-charter schools into charter schools.

Carrie R. Leana, the George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh, and her colleagues spent the past decade examining some of the underlying core beliefs of the current reform movement. In the fall issue of the ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Stanford Social Innovation Review, Leana described the three tenets of what she terms “the ideology of school reform”:  “These three beliefs -- in the power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice -- form the implicit or explicit core of many reform efforts today. Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research.” 

Leana doesn’t dismiss entirely strategies such as ending tenure, importing people from outside education to run schools, and training principals as instructional leaders. Rather, she contends that these “solutions” are grounded not in evidence but rather in ideology.

Based on large-scale studies of schools in New York and Pittsburgh, Leana and her colleagues argue that the preoccupation with individual human capital obscures the value of building social capital in schools as a means to improve student learning.  For teachers, this means opportunities to collaborate on curriculum, lesson design, and teaching approaches. As a teacher explained, “With collaboration, you are exposed to other teachers’ priorities and are better able to incorporate them to broaden your own approach in the classroom.”

The Pittsburgh researchers also discovered that in schools that featured high-quality instruction and higher standardized test results, principals spent significant time building social capital through “meeting with parents, developing community relations, going to community meetings, and interacting with outsiders, such as foundations and publishers.”   The payoff in student performance of principals spending time developing external relations and partnerships was significantly greater that spending time mentoring and monitoring teachers.

Finally, Leana’s data raise questions about the push to end teacher tenure. Students learn significantly more from teachers who have extended experience teaching a particular grade or subject in the same school. This finding reinforces the importance of social capital in student learning:  Teachers who stay in the same school and teach the same grade levels and subjects are more likely to develop the collaborative professional communities that underlie higher student test results. Although, like any profession, teaching has its poor practitioners, many of these are among the nearly 50 percent who leave the profession before their fifth year.

I offer these findings from the Pittsburgh research to illustrate that some of the most popular reforms being touted today not only lack a research basis but are also contrary to empirical studies. Even Mr. Gates now seems to understand the value of research as a basis for reform programs. 

And this is the “value-added” of education schools at institutions like Carolina. Our faculty is committed to developing practices and interventions that are thoroughly tested in the field. Examples include the Targeted Reading Intervention that Lynne Vernon-Feagans has developed and tested with her colleagues; the Rural Early Adolescents Learning Program (REAL) that Jill Hamm and Judith Meece were instrumental in creating and testing; the Madres para Ninos program that Steve Knotek has spearheaded and is testing; and the behavioral intervention models developed by Kathleen Lane that have been implemented in schools in California and Tennessee, and soon, we expect, in North Carolina.   (This is by no means an exhaustive list -- please visit our website to learn more about the SOE faculty’s work that has produced field-tested interventions).

No doubt a few of the reforms that have been and will be launched will produce positive results for students and their families. Many of us, however, are leery of medical procedures that have not been rigorously tested before being presented as cures for what ails us. Yet, reformers such as Mr. Gates and the Obama Administration, seem to have few qualms about prescribing policies and practices that, as Professor Leana and other researchers have demonstrated, are based on little more than ideology.

Research-based practices have been developed and field-tested -- often at schools of education. The challenge is to get these on the reformers’ radar screens.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.