Many, many years ago, during the summer after my freshman year in college, I hitchhiked from London to Iran. This was the summer of 1969, so Apollo 11 was also traveling. I saw television footage of the moon landing in Heraklion, Crete, where a television store switched on all of its sets and turned them toward the sidewalk. A large crowd watched the whole thing. This was one of the few times I recall when it was really cool to be an American abroad.
After leaving Greece, I went on to Turkey, and then Iran. In Teheran, I got hold of an English-language newspaper. It told an interesting story. In rural Iran, many people believed that the moon was a goddess. Obviously, a spaceship cannot land on a goddess, so many people concluded that the moon landing must be a hoax.
A reporter from the newspaper interviewed a number of people about the moon landing. Some were adamant that the landing could not have happened. However, one farmer was more pragmatic. He asked the reporter, “I hear the astronauts brought back moon rocks. Is that right?”
“That’s what they say!” replied the reporter.
“I am fixing my roof, and I could sure use a few of those moon rocks. Do you think they might give me some?”
The moon rock story illustrates a daunting problem in the dissemination of educational research. Researchers do high-quality research on topics of great importance to the practice of education. They publish this research in top journals, and get promotions and awards for it, but in most cases, their research does not arouse even the slightest bit of interest among the educators for whom it was intended.
The problem relates to the farmer repairing his roof. He had a real problem to solve, and he needed help with it. A reporter comes and tells him about the moon landing. The farmer does not think, “How wonderful! What a great day for science and discovery and the future of mankind!” Instead, he thinks, “What does this have to do with me?” Thinking back on the event, I sometimes wonder if he really expected any moon rocks, or if he was just sarcastically saying, “I don’t care.”
Educators care deeply about their students, and they will do anything they can to help them succeed. But if they hear about research that does not relate to their children, or at least to children like theirs, they are unlikely to care very much. Even if the research is directly applicable to their students, they are likely to reason, perhaps from long experience, that they will never get access to this research, because it costs money or takes time or upsets established routines or is opposed by powerful groups or whatever. The result is status quo as far as the eye can see, or implementation of small changes that are currently popular but unsupported by evidence of effectiveness. Ultimately, the result is cynicism about all research.
Part of the problem is that education is effectively a government monopoly, so entrepreneurship or responsible innovation are difficult to start or maintain. However, the fact that education is a government monopoly can also be made into a positive, if government leaders are willing to encourage and support evidence-based reform.
Imagine that government decided to provide incentive funding to schools to help them adopt programs that meet a high standard of evidence. This has actually happened under the ESSA law, but only in a very narrow slice of schools, those very low achieving schools that qualify for school improvement. Imagine that the government provided a lot more support to schools to help them learn about, adopt, and effectively implement proven programs, and then gradually expanded the categories of schools that could qualify for this funding.
Going back to the farmer and the moon rocks, such a policy would forge a link between exciting research on promising innovations and the real world of practice. It could cause educators to pay much closer attention to research on practical programs of relevance to them, and to learn how to tell the difference between valid and biased research. It could help educators become sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers of evidence and of programs themselves.
One of the best examples of the transformation such policies could bring about is agriculture. Research has a long history in agriculture, and from colonial times, government has encouraged and incentivized farmers to pay attention to evidence about new practices, new seeds, new breeds of animals, and so on. By the late 19th century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was sponsoring research, distributing information designed to help farmers be more productive, and much more. Today, research in agriculture is a huge enterprise, constantly making important discoveries that improve productivity and reduce costs. As a result, world agriculture, especially American agriculture, is able to support far larger populations at far lower costs than anyone ever thought possible. The Iranian farmer talking about the moon rocks could not see how advances in science could possibly benefit him personally. Today, however, in every developed economy, farmers have a clear understanding of the connection between advances in science and their own success. Everyone knows that agriculture can have bad as well as good effects, as when new practices lead to pollution, but when governments decide to solve those problems, they turn to science. Science is not inherently good or bad, but if it is powerful, then democracies can direct it to do what is best for people.
Agriculture has made dramatic advances over the past hundred years, and continues to make rapid progress by linking science to practice. In education, we are just starting to make the link between evidence and practice. Isn’t it time to learn from the experiences of medicine, technology, and agriculture, among many other evidence based fields, to achieve more rapid progress in educational practice and outcomes?
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.