On Reviews of Research in Education

Not so long ago, every middle class home had at least one encyclopedia. Encyclopedias were prominently displayed, a statement to all that this was a house that valued learning. People consulted the encyclopedia to find out about things of interest to them. Those who did not own encyclopedias found them in the local library, where they were heavily used. As a kid, I loved everything about encyclopedias. I loved to read them, but also loved their musty small, their weight, and their beautiful maps and photos.

There were two important advantages of an encyclopedia. First, it was encyclopedic, so users could be reasonably certain that whatever information they wanted was in there somewhere. Second, they were authoritative. Whatever it said in the encyclopedia was likely to be true, or at least carefully vetted by experts.

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In educational research, and all scientific fields, we have our own kinds of encyclopedias. One consists of articles in journals that publish reviews of research. In our field, the Review of Educational Research plays a pre-eminent role in this, but there are many others. Reviews are hugely popular. Invariably, review journals have a much higher citation count than even the most esteemed journals focusing on empirical research. In addition to journals, reviews appear I edited volumes, in online compendia, in technical reports, and other sources. At Johns Hopkins, we produce a bi-weekly newsletter, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB; https://beibindex.wordpress.com/) that summarizes recent research in education. Two years ago we looked at analytics to find out the favorite articles from BEiB. Although BEiB mostly summarizes individual studies, almost all of its favorite articles were summaries of the findings of recent reviews.

Over time, RER and other review journals become “encyclopedias” of a sort.  However, they are not encyclopedic. No journal tries to ensure that key topics will all be covered over time. Instead, journal reviewers and editors evaluate each review sent to them on its own merits. I’m not criticizing this, but it is the way the system works.

Are reviews in journals authoritative? They are in one sense, because reviews accepted for publication have been carefully evaluated by distinguished experts on the topic at hand. However, review methods vary widely and reviews are written for many purposes. Some are written primarily for theory development, and some are really just essays with citations. In contrast, one category of reviews, meta-analyses, go to great lengths to locate and systematically include all relevant citations. These are not pure types, and most meta-analyses have at least some focus on theory building and discussion of current policy or research issues, even if their main purpose is to systematically review a well-defined set of studies.

Given the state of the art of research reviews in education, how could we create an “encyclopedia” of evidence from all sources on the effectiveness of programs and practices designed to improve student outcomes? The goal of such an activity would be to provide readers with something both encyclopedic and authoritative.

My colleagues and I created two websites that are intended to serve as a sort of encyclopedia of PK-12 instructional programs. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org) consists of meta-analyses written by our staff and students, all of which use similar inclusion criteria and review methods. These are used by a wide variety of readers, especially but not only researchers. The BEE has meta-analyses on elementary and secondary reading, reading for struggling readers, writing programs, programs for English learners, elementary and secondary mathematics, elementary and secondary science, early childhood programs, and other topics, so at least as far as achievement outcomes are concerned, it is reasonably encyclopedic. Our second website is Evidence for ESSA, designed more for educators. It seeks to include every program currently in existence, and therefore is truly encyclopedic in reading and mathematics. Sections on social emotional learning, attendance, and science are in progress.

Are the BEE and Evidence for ESSA authoritative as well as encyclopedic? You’ll have to judge for yourself. One important indicator of authoritativeness for the BEE is that all of the meta-analyses are eventually published, so the reviewers for those journals could be considered to be lending authority.

The What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) could be considered authoritative, as it is a carefully monitored online publication of the U.S. Department of Education. But is it encyclopedic? Probably not, for two reasons. One is that the WWC has difficulty keeping up with new research. Secondly, the WWC does not list programs that do not have any studies that meet its standards. As a result of both of these, a reader who types in the name of a current program may find nothing at all on it. Is this because the program did not meet WWC standards, or because the WWC has not yet reviewed it? There is no way to tell. Still, the WWC makes important contributions in the areas it has reviewed.

Beyond the websites focused on achievement, the most encyclopedic and authoritative source is Blueprints (www.blueprintsprograms.org). Blueprints focuses on drug and alcohol abuse, violence, bullying, social emotional learning, and other topics not extensively covered in other review sources.

In order to provide readers with easy access to all of the reviews meeting a specified level of quality on a given topic, it would be useful to have a source that briefly describes various reviews, regardless of where they appear. For example, a reader might want to know about all of the meta-analyses that focus on elementary mathematics, or dropout prevention, or attendance. These would include review articles published in scientific journals, technical reports, websites, edited volumes, and so on. To be cited in detail, the reviews should have to meet agreed-upon criteria, including a restriction to experimental-control comparison, a broad and well-documented search for eligible studies, documented efforts to include all studies (published or unpublished) that fall within well-specified parameters (e.g., subjects, grade levels, and start and end dates of studies included). Reviews that meet these standards might be highlighted, though others, including less systematic reviews, should be listed as well, as supplementary resources.

Creating such a virtual encyclopedia would be a difficult but straightforward task. At the end, the collection of rigorous reviews would offer readers encyclopedic, authoritative information on the topics of their interest, as well as providing something more important that no paper encyclopedias ever included: contrasting viewpoints from well-informed experts on each topic.

My imagined encyclopedia wouldn’t have the hypnotic musty smell, the impressive heft, or the beautiful maps and photos of the old paper encyclopedias. However, it would give readers access to up-to-date, curated, authoritative, quantitative reviews of key topics in education, with readable and appealing summaries of what was concluded in qualifying reviews.

Also, did I mention that unlike the encyclopedias of old, it would have to be free?

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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