Saturday, October 06, 2007

OUT OF THE TOWER AND INTO THE CLASSROOM: Connecting research to teaching the key to success

Opinion by Deborah Stipek | Dallas Morning News

Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - Why are we having so much difficulty increasing student learning in the U.S.? Do we lack knowledge about how to improve K-12 education, or are we failing to use what we know?

To be sure, we don't know everything. But many effective practices that are well known among researchers are rarely seen in K-12 schools.

The problem stems in part from a disconnect that exists between research and practice. Unlike other fields, where research is directly connected to production or implementation, educational research in the U.S. is done mostly in universities and by organizations completely separated from schools. As a consequence, many educational researchers are not well-informed of the real challenges practitioners face, which undermines the relevance of their research.

When findings are relevant, there is no easy way for administrators and teachers to access these findings. Imagine a high-tech industry that was not well informed of research on building faster, more efficient computers, or hospitals that implemented only 10 percent of what is known about effective medical practice. Sounds ludicrous? It's not far from the truth in the field of education.

We can fix this problem by creating institutionalized, sustained and well-funded connections between educational research and practice. We can situate researchers in districts and schools, and create organizational structures that connect schools with universities to ensure unbiased and rigorous research.

Stanford's School of Education is trying to close the research-practice gap by embedding research in real schools and communities. For example, our teacher education program – a central part of our school that involves more than half of our full-time, tenure track faculty – both informs and benefits from recent research on effective practice.

In our Leadership, Equity and Accountability in Schools and Districts program, our faculty and doctoral students collaborate with districts across the country to create small, high-performing high schools, and document and share findings from these efforts to transform school systems. Our John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities partners with government agencies and service providers to promote positive youth development in low-income communities. Connected to this work are studies, for example, to identify the critical components of effective after-school programs and strategies for promoting a sense of purpose and civic responsibility among youth.

Our most ambitious effort to integrate theory with practice is the establishment of a K-12 public charter school we run in a low-income community near the Stanford campus. This serves as the ultimate accountability for our work – we are practicing what we preach and the outcome is visible to all.

We help design the curriculum, assist teachers with instructional planning and assessment, and provide professional development. Research is embedded in the work so that we are systematically documenting and sharing what we develop and learn. For example, one faculty member is currently investigating at our charter school how elementary school teachers learn and improve their teaching methods in a collaborative, practice-oriented professional development program similar to the "lesson study" approach developed in Japan.

In these and many other initiatives at Stanford, our research faculty and doctoral students collaborate with practitioners. We have opportunities to observe first-hand the problems of practice, which in turn inform our research questions and interpretations and teaches us how to communicate our findings in ways that are useful to teachers and administrators. By stepping out of the ivory tower and developing deep and sustained partnerships with practitioners, research universities can play powerful roles in helping improve and transform our K-12 schools.

I am not suggesting that every university start a school. But until we develop these kinds of strategies to connect research and practice, as we do in every other industry and public sector, we will continue to re-invent the wheel and see educational practice influenced by fads and unfounded beliefs rather than systematically developed knowledge about how children learn and what educational practices work.

Deborah J. Stipek is the I. James Quillen Dean and Professor of Education at Stanford University. Her e-mail address is

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