Research and Practice: “Tear Down This Wall”

I was recently in Berlin. Today, it’s a lively, entirely normal European capital. But the first time I saw it, it was 1970, and the wall still divided it. Like most tourists, I went through Checkpoint Charlie to the east side. The two sides were utterly different. West Berlin was pleasant, safe, and attractive. East Berlin was a different world. On my recent trip, I met a young researcher who grew up in West Berlin. He recalls his father being taken in for questioning because he accidentally brought a West Berlin newspaper across the border. Western people could visit, but western newspapers could get you arrested.

I remember John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.” And one day, for reasons no one seems to understand, the wall was gone. Even today, I find it thrilling and incredible to walk down Unter den Linden under the Brandenburg Gate. Not so long ago, this was impossible, even fatal.

The reason I bring up the Berlin Wall is that I want to use it as an analogy to another wall of less geopolitical consequence, perhaps, but very important to our profession. This is the wall between research and practice.

It is not my intention to disrespect the worlds on either side of the research/practice wall. People on both sides care deeply about children and bring enormous knowledge, skill, and effort to improving educational outcomes. In fact, that’s what is so sad about this wall. People on both sides have so much to teach and learn from the other, but all too often, they don’t.

What has been happening in recent years is that the federal government, at least, has been reinforcing the research/practice divide in many ways, at least until the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (more on this later). On one hand, government has invested in high-quality educational research and development, especially through Investing in Innovation (i3) and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). As a result, over on the research side of the wall there is a growing stockpile of rigorously evaluated, ready-to-implement education programs for most subjects and grade levels.

On the practice side of the wall, however, government has implemented national policies that may or may not have a basis in research, but definitely do not focus on use of proven programs. Examples include accountability, teacher evaluation, and Common Core. Even federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) for the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in each state had loads of detailed requirements for schools to follow but said nothing at all about using proven programs or practices, until a proven whole-school reform option was permitted as one of six alternatives at the very end of No Child Left Behind. The huge Race to the Top funding program was similarly explicit about standards, assessments, teacher evaluations, and other issues, but said nothing about use of proven programs.

On the research side of the wall, developers and researchers were being encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education to write their findings clearly and “scale up” their findings to presumably eager potential adopters on the practice side. Yet the very same department was, at the same time, keeping education leaders on the practice side of the wall scrambling to meet federal standards to obtain Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other funding, none of which had anything much to do with the evidence base building up on the research side of the wall. The problem posed by the Berlin Wall was not going to be resolved by sneaking well-written West Berlin newspapers into East Berlin, or East Berlin newspapers into West Berlin. Rather, someone had to tear down the wall.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is one attempt to tear down the research/practice wall. Its definitions of strong, moderate, and promising levels of evidence, and provision of funding incentives for using proven programs (especially in applications for school improvement), could go a long way toward tearing down the research/practice wall, but it’s too soon to tell. So far, these definitions are just words on a page. It will take national, state, and local leadership to truly make evidence central to education policy and practice.

On National Public Radio, I recently heard recorded recollections from people who were in Berlin the day the wall came down. One of them really stuck with me. West Berliners had climbed to the top of the wall and were singing and cheering as gaps were opened. Then, an East German man headed for a gap. The nearby soldiers, unsure what to do, pointed their rifles at him and told him to stop. He put his hands in the air. The West Germans on the wall fell silent, anxiously watching.

A soldier went to find the captain. The captain came out of a guardhouse and walked over to the East German man. He put his arm around his shoulders and personally walked him through the gap in the wall.

That’s leadership. That’s courage. It’s what we need to tear down our wall: leaders at all levels who actively encourage the world of research and the world of practice to become one. To do it by personal and public examples, so that educators can understand that the rules have changed, and that communication between research and practice, and use of proven programs and practices, will be encouraged and facilitated.

Our wall can come down. It’s only a question of leadership, and commitment to better outcomes for children.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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