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Fitting R&D; into school reform


IF EDUCATION reform is to succeed locally and nationally, the traditional three "Rs" of schooling (reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic) must be preceded by a fourth: "R&D;" -- that is, research and development.

Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, wrote a book several years ago lamenting the absence in public education of the R&D; that has led to strategic growth in industry, commerce and science.

The nonpartisan Consortium on Productivity in the Schools concluded in a 1995 report that the education sector is heavily politicized and subject to fads because so many issues cannot be decided on technical grounds: "The system suffers from too much scattered and unevaluated change and too little systematic, well-evaluated change."

The R&D; gap, for example, is at the root of the dispute over the Maryland State Board of Education's recent decision to take over and contract out three low-performing Baltimore City schools. How long does it take for school reforms -- such as new curriculum and instructional methods, teacher training, smaller class size and remedial interventions like tutoring and summer school -- to show results? And where is the balance between seeking a variety of educational entrepreneurs to take over individual schools, and concentrating on cultivating systemwide change in an urban district where most schools are chronically poor performers?

R&D; is the way to find answers to these questions. But the process is not well understood by educators and political leaders. R&D; requires not just choosing the best research-instructional practices but growing them through sustained technical assistance, quality control monitoring, evaluation and continuous improvement over many years. However, politicians lack patience, and educators too often lack the management culture and capacity to make this happen.

R&D; skills -- commonly found in the business and science worlds -- are almost nonexistent within school systems. Education management tends to be characterized by Peter (or Paula) Principal, who probably was an excellent teacher and school administrator but then was promoted to tasks of a far different kind.

Capacity building must start at the top. Even political conservatives agree that the federal government should play a larger role in R&D.; The U.S. Department of Education has been criticized for politicizing its research and doing shoddy work.

Moreover, the national investment has been meager. R&D; expenditures are about one-tenth of 1 percent of all federal education spending. Of R&D; spending across all federal agencies, only one-half of 1 percent is allocated to K-12.

State departments of education also tend to neglect R&D.; They focus on what students should learn, while deferring to local school systems on how it should be taught. This avoids controversy over state encroachment on local control of curriculum. But as professor Susan Follett Lusi points out in her book, "The Role of State Departments of Education in School Reform," it also reflects insufficient funding and management expertise to perform R&D; functions. Despite improvement in recent years, the Maryland department recognizes the need to beef up its capacity for extensive research, program development, technical assistance, monitoring and evaluation.

While the federal government and states must step up their efforts, it is in the trenches -- in local school districts -- that R&D; must gain the strongest foothold. This is particularly true if the most essential aspect of R&D; -- continuous improvement over a period of years -- is to occur.

Researchers and practictioners generally agree that it takes about five years for any reform program to be fairly judged. Yet, this depends on what happens during that period. School reforms -- like innovations in industry and science -- rarely lend themselves to thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdicts based on their original designs.

They must be closely tracked and analyzed. Has the reform been implemented as it was designed and intended? Has sufficient technical assistance, from program manuals to staff training, been provided? Has quality control and its effectiveness been monitored? Most of all, has there been a feedback loop that leads to incremental, field-tested revisions?

Local school systems do not now have the tools -- the funds and staff -- to carry out these indispensable tasks. Program developers, from textbook publishers such as Open Court to schoolwide reform models such as Direct Instruction, Success for All and the Edison Project, offer substantial technical assistance and training. Yet, school systems must have their own capacity to conduct independent evaluations and to steer continuous improvement.

The city school system should seek state and foundation funding to create an "R&D;" unit that could be a national model. A top-level unit must be able to coordinate work that cuts across and deeply into almost every vital organ of the system: school-based delivery of instruction, curriculum development and professional development as well as the traditional number-crunching done in research departments. Outside experts with non-educational backgrounds but general R&D; experience must be brought in as staff and consultants.

In the Baltimore region, we have a particular home court advantage in any R&D; competition. Sam Stringfield and Robert E. Slavin at Johns Hopkins University are nationally recognized experts in how to implement school reforms. Mr. Stringfield is also a member of the city school board.

To paraphrase Mark Twain's famous comment about smoking, it's easy to reform schools: We've done it a thousand times.

Real success -- particularly on behalf of disadvantaged students -- will happen when educators use R&D; as the framework for working smarter and sticking longer with research-based reforms.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant.

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