The Limited Value of "What Works" Research

In the current edition of Education Week, Bo Yan and Mike Slagle write following:

"Ever since educational research became an academic discipline more than a century ago, researchers and educators have been vocal in their dissatisfaction over its impact on practice. For decades, education research has been criticized as confusing, irrelevant, and of little practical use, fueling a pessimistic view that research probably will not lead to better schools.

In response, the federal government and the research community have zeroed in on so-called “what works” research, and, in recent years, studies have mushroomed to answer a broad range of policy questions, such as: Do school vouchers work? Does technology improve student learning? Are private schools better than public schools? At the same time, existing studies on intervention strategies and programs are scrutinized to provide educators, policymakers, and the public with trusted and easy-to-understand scientific evidence of effective programming. The federal What Works Clearinghouse is a premier example of such endeavors.

This is all well and good, but we would argue that it is far from enough. We believe it is time for a research shift, and instead of making determinations about whether programs work or not, attention should turn to identifying the right students for whom a program is effective and the necessary contextual conditions that make a program work. What’s more, local schools should conduct rigorous studies to determine whether programs and initiatives will work for their students..."

Agreed. Rather than the singular focus on "does it work", we need the answers of "how it works". Articles next to never explain in a systematic way what is really unique about the practice, what are the essential elements, what are the critical implementation steps that are never discussed elsewhere, and what were the major mistakes you made on the way to perfecting the practice. That is practical information to improve student outcomes. Being a judge is much easier than being a good teacher.