Education: The Next Evidence-based Profession

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang posted a message to a group of his fellow medical school classmates: “A new coronavirus infection has been confirmed and its type is being identified. Inform all family and relatives to be on guard.” He was publicly rebuked for his claims and in January 2020 became one of the early victims of what would become known as COVID-19; a disease that would change the world forever.

In the weeks and months that followed, we witnessed science happening in real time. Doctors and medical researchers around the world teamed up to achieve a lengthy list of historic triumphs. Within 22 days of China’s notification of the discovery of the illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) documented evidence of human-to-human transmission. Within the first month from its detection, scientists had sequenced its genome and shared the sequence through open source channels so that researchers around the world could get to work on vaccines and treatment options. Within a year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted emergency authorization to the first vaccine against COVID-19; the fastest developed vaccine in history.

We watched nightly as broadcasters interviewed doctors, policy makers, and researchers who shared their work in real time. We experienced the frustration of science as recommendations changed, the medical field adapted, and society shifted. We saw their hope, their frustration, their despair, and their victories. It showed us what it truly means to be a member of an evidence-informed profession.

The medical field hasn’t always been an evidence-informed profession as we would describe it today. The medical profession began as a trade profession; one where master and apprentice worked together to serve the needs of the community. With the development of clinical epidemiology in the 1930s, a view of medicine that observed disease within its social and environmental context, scientific methodologies began to weave their way into medical training. In the 1970s, medical schools began incorporating biostatistics into their training programs, and by the late 1990s, the term evidence-based medicine had become mainstream within the profession (Zimerman, 2013). Medical professionals began to use research methodologies to better understand what was happening to their patients, and this led to a rapid improvement of health outcomes across the globe.

Today, the American Medical Association has enshrined the commitment to evidence-use in its Principles of Medical Ethics, which state “A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated.” Every medical professional has an established ethical obligation to use and create research that advances their field.

As the world begins to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time that the education profession takes up the mantle and fully self-actualizes into an evidence-based profession itself.

The education profession has been tip-toeing its way into the evidence space for a while. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) introduced the phrases “scientifically-based research” and “research-based” into the education lexicon. We would see a strengthening of this language in the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), which introduced the term “evidence-based” into our field and provided the first clear definition of such a term, as follows:

“… the term “evidence-based,” when used with respect to a State, local educational agency, or school activity, means an activity, strategy, or intervention that –

(i) demonstrates a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on –

(I) strong evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study;

(II) moderate evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or

(III) promising evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias; or

(ii) (I) demonstrates a rationale based on high-quality research findings or positive evaluation that such activity, strategy, or intervention is likely to improve student outcomes or other relevant outcomes; and

(II) includes ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention.”

This change led to a surge in compliance based evidence-use in the five years that followed its enactment as well as greater access to research for educators in the field. The What Works Clearinghouse made changes to its platform to help educators vet curriculum and programs in alignment to the ESSA standard and Johns Hopkins University released the Evidence for ESSA website which proved to be a valuable early resource. States released new training tools, like these from Kentucky, and clearinghouses and databases, like this one from Ohio, to further add to the resource environment. Most recently, in January 2020, the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) began enforcing a policy to require that all research funded by IES grants be submitted for public access in the ERIC database.

While the scramble to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed a lot of this work, the education profession is poised to launch itself forward into this space. In fact, it must launch itself forward. The pandemic has most certainly created new challenges, exacerbated existing gaps, and contributed to the often mentioned phenomenon of learning loss. As teachers work to over-perform and accelerate learning, the education field is ripe for classroom teachers to adopt a medical mentality and take personal responsibility for studying, applying, and advancing scientific knowledge in the field.

In order to recover from COVID-19 and ensure a truly world class education that produces globally competitive future adults, we must transition our evidence-based decision making from the realm of policy and leadership into a clear ethical and moral responsibility that is universally shared by educators at every level, from the classroom to central office and into teacher preparation and full time research positions. We must model our peers in the medical field and present a unified front, dedicated to advancing the science of teaching and learning.

So, where do we begin? Evidence-based work in education has historically been rooted in compliance, so it makes sense to start with changes to policy. Policymakers must begin to take a hard look at how evidence is defined, what kinds of evidence educators have access to, and where evidence may and shall be required in the law. Many organizations have already begun to tackle this problem, like Results for America’s Next Generation Definition of “Evidence-Based” project. From the field, educators at every level can tap into these conversations and advocate for changes that improve evidence adoption and begin to transition it from a space of compliance into something more meaningful.

Next, we must elevate examples of awesome classroom teachers who are already engaging with evidence. I have traveled across the country and spoken to thousands of educators and they are truly brilliant, dedicated, and highly trained professionals (over half of whom have graduate degrees). We must make it a priority to elevate the voices of those who are engaging with evidence in a meaningful way. Let their examples serve as inspiration to others and models for how research can be deployed to improve and enhance teaching and learning. I am dedicating myself to this task and will begin to feature some of these amazing educators on this blog (PS, if you are one of these amazing educators, or know one, fill out this form and get in touch with me!). I challenge others with platforms and audiences to do the same.

As we elevate their examples, we must also seek to elevate their innovations. Pandemic recovery will undoubtedly generate new teaching theories, methods, and techniques. We must document those and share them across the field. Just as our peers in the medical profession have done throughout the pandemic, educators must shout their victories from the rooftops so that other educators can learn from them and build off those victories. This will require new methods of capturing and sharing pilot projects, new venues for documenting and publishing case studies, and new supports for teachers as they seek to study their innovations at scale.

Finally, we must build research capacity in our teaching workforce. Research design and interpretation must become a more meaningful part of teacher preparation programs and professional development cycles. Those of us who provide professional learning must be more transparent in openly sharing and discussing the research that informs our work and teachers should begin to demand to see the research that is informing their time spent in after school study sessions. We can also build capacity by offering opportunities for teacher to engage in action research, providing protected time for research review, and creating a culture where research use is the expectation.

Now is also a great time for schools to begin to build new relationships with the research institutions and universities that service their regions. In doing so, I challenge researchers to engage more deeply with the educators with whom they work. We must tear down the wall that divides practitioners and researchers in education and both sides have a role to play in doing so.

I know I have not presented an easy task in this post, but the most important tasks never are. If we make an effort to be more intentional and incorporate research into the daily workflow of our field, we can more rapidly transform the education space into one where scientific advancement is the norm in every classroom and schoolhouse. While it may feel like a lot of work up front, educators who engage with research reap the rewards of their efforts when student learning accelerates, outmoded and ineffective processes are eliminated, new innovations are documented and shared. Teachers – I ask you to stand with me now, committed to pushing the education profession forward, and make this coming school year the year of the teacher researcher.