An academic mentor of mine used to say that social science research almost always confirms common sense, or … it is wrong. There is some wisdom in that, but I wouldn’t go quite as far as his more cynical conclusion – “we’ve learned one thing from 50 years of research on health and education – smoking is bad for you.”
As a social science researcher, I have always found the questions we study to be fascinating, but often the answers are frustratingly elusive. Still, some recent research in education has done more than validate common sense, and has driven important changes in policy focus.
For example, by having teacher identifiers and longitudinal data in some states (Tennessee, Florida and a few others), researchers have shown: 1) the great importance for low-income student learning of having good teachers for a few consecutive years, versus having bad teachers (yes, this validates common sense, but it shows that learning gains for low-income kids are possible under good teaching); and 2) traditional inputs into teacher pay (seniority and Masters degrees) have little or no association with student learning outcomes (less clearly associated with common sense).
This evidence points to a greater focus on teacher effectiveness, which we now are seeing in Race to the Top and elsewhere, greater equity in quality teacher distribution across schools, and more focus on teacher outputs and outcomes than on the inputs. This is what evidence based research should do.
But a study on teacher induction programs released this week, brings to the forefront this issue of research findings versus common sense or common wisdom “on the ground.” I’m particularly intrigued by this study because, at a conference last year, I observed a panel discussion of the first year of findings. Now the second year findings are out.
The study is “Impacts of Comprehensive Teacher Induction: Results from the Second Year of a Randomized Controlled Study,” by Eric Isenberg, Steven Glazerman, Martha Bleeker, Amy Johnson, Julieta Lugo-Gil, Mary Grider, Sarah Dolfin, Edward Britton, and Melanie Ali – Mathematica Policy Research, August 2009.
It is funded by the Institute for Education Sciences for 5 years. The authors are expert methodologists; 1,000 teachers in 400 elementary schools in 17 districts in 13 states are involved, and the districts had to agree to a randomized design where some new teachers get one of two high quality, nationally-respected induction programs, while other teachers get “induction as usual.” This is the gold standard of research designs (and costs $17 million).
The findings: after two years, the teachers getting better induction programs do not show any increase in their student learning outcomes, compared to the control group.
So, either common sense is wrong and a great induction program for teachers doesn’t move student achievement, or there is something wrong with this study (doubtful to me), or 2 years is too short to see student learning outcome effects (possible, and a good thing the study is funded for 5 years).
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