Ruth’s Testimony on Independent Education Research

Testimony to DC City Council’s Committee of the Whole, 2016

April 14, 2016

Ruth Wattenberg

Ward 3 Member, DC State Board of Education.

Thank you Chairman Mendelson:

Two weeks ago over 150 people came to a meeting about data, research and DC education. The need for more knowledge about our schools resonates. Lots of people want it, and what was clear from the testimony is that different folks—teachers, policymakers, advocates, after school programs, school leaders–need and want different stuff. The needs overlap but aren’t the same. Figuring out what data exists and doesn’t, what is needed by who, and how to get it is a huge challenge—both political and technical. It’s why our proposal calls for among other things an initial audit of what exists and what needs to exist. One need is for more and better raw data. I won’t focus on this except to note that part of what we don’t know is how our most vulnerable and lowest-income students are progressing—a huge hole in our knowledge—and something pointed out by the State Board of Education last spring in its report to OSSE on the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act.

I want to on focus on another piece of our proposal that is less well understood, the need for research that is independent and public; that reflects a wide variety of viewpoints; that is practice based and improvement focused. The kind of research famously undertaken by the Chicago Consortium on School Reform, a partnership between University of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, founded by Tony Bryk, now copied in more than a dozen cities. It has consistently produced some of the very best research that exists in education.

I used to think that the reason their work was so good is just that they were really good. But, I was on a panel earlier this week with Bryk, and I realized in a way that I hadn’t before that it’s not just that they’re good. They do something different. And we need that different approach—along with better access to more and better data.

What’s the difference?

Their work grows out of complexity theory which sounds grandiose, but it means what we all know is true: When you launch a new idea into a complex social organization, you can’t predict what people will do with these ideas. In schools, you can’t predict what the results will be for children—except that there will be unintended consequences—some of them perverse. Chicago’s insight was to understand that in this environment, you can’t undertake research and hope to improve things in a traditional way. Among the differences in their research:

.#1. It’s independent, not tied to the interests of the institution being studied.

#2. It’s public, and becomes part of the public conversation, building understanding of what are our schools are doing and what they need to succeed.

 #3. It takes seriously the role and views of a broad stakeholder steering committee including education and civic leaders, teachers, advocates, non-profits and other researchers. As Tony Bryk said on this panel before the American Education Research Association: “Researchers have biases too,” easily leading to narrow questions and incomplete interpretations. He emphasized the breadth of CCSR’s stakeholders, noting that from the beginning they put on the committee, “the people who were absolutely sure a reform would succeed and those who were certain it would fail.” This steering committee has met every 6 weeks for 14 years. Just imagine the trust and social knowledge that has been built. Imagine the social capital and wisdom that resides there, regardless of who is superintendent or the head of this or that institution.

 #4. Partnership with Practitioners If you want a policy to succeed as it’s unleashed into the complex world of a school, you “need ears close to the ground.” to understand what actually happens when the idea confronts reality—and what is needed to make it fly right. That means researchers in the schools, observing and taking notes—but also talking with teachers, principals and other staff… and building relationships and trust.   From top to bottom of the school hierarchy, practitioners are engaged in this research, as partners, changing up implementation mid-course, learning the effects of the new changes. This constant, incremental improvement of reform strategies, making them more and more potent, is called improvement science-–and it is a key goal of this research.

The genius of the CCSR has been to think of research differently. To realize that in a complicated world like a school, to both understand and effect change, you need a different kind of research enterprise. The name used for these entities is Research-practice partnership. It produces a kind of knowledge that can’t be gained in another way. It’s a resource that we need and that will be developed through the process outlined in this proposal.

Thank you.