Chester E. Finn, Jr. 

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Thank you for the tantalizing challenge to identify education research that has had an impact on policy and/or practice. We agree that this is an important area of inquiry; in fact, we are launching a kindred investigation at this very time.

Now, let me respond to your questions. Here are five examples of research that have had an especially large impact on education policy—for good or ill. 

  1. Jay Greene’s work on high school graduation rates. Jay’s methods were remarkably straightforward. He simply used existing data and presented and interpreted them in a fresh and compelling way. His annual release of state-by-state graduation rates became a major media event and helped to spur the current focus on high school reform. Importantly, the nation’s governors have now committed to using a common method of measuring graduation and dropout rates that is quite similar to Jay’s.

    These reports made an immediate splash because of their clarity and utility to journalists. There’s nothing a state or local reporter likes more than being able to write about how his or her state stacks up against the rest of the country (especially if the news is not good). Plus, Jay’s numbers demonstrated that most public officials had been misleading their citizens about the extent of the dropout crisis—another prime story for today’s muckraking journalism. Jay also benefited from good timing. He hit upon this idea just as the high school reform movement was getting off the ground (thanks largely to Gates Foundation largess). His numbers fit into the reformers’ story line.
  2. David Grissmer’s RAND study on NAEP gains in Texas and North Carolina. In 1999, as Texas Governor Bush was heading towards victory as the GOP presidential candidate, RAND released this short study examining the dramatic increases in student achievement in Texas and North Carolina. The conclusion: standards-based reform, implemented thoughtfully over many years, can boost student learning, especially for poor and minority students. The impact is obvious; the study helped to propel Bush to the White House and served as the best evidence for expanding the “Texas Miracle” to the rest of the country through the No Child Left Behind Act. Once again, the timing was fortuitous and the conclusion fit perfectly into the story line of influential reformers.
  3. Tennessee STAR Class Size Experiment. This study is noted for being the best-known example of a large-scale, random-assignment, controlled experiment in K-12 education. And it has surely been influential, as the raft of state (and eventually federal) class-size reduction programs of the 1990s demonstrated. While we might wish to believe that its impact was due to its quality, just as strong a case can be made that its influence came from the fact that its conclusion aligned with the interests of powerful constituents—namely teacher unions and parents. In my view, its impact has largely been negative, as states (especially California, Florida ) ignored the limitations of its findings. (Class size reduction, the study found, has the greatest impact at grades K-3, but only if class size is sharply reduced to 15. Few programs were targeted to those earlier grades, and fewer still achieved such significant reductions.)  
  4. Bill Sanders’s Value-Added Research on Teacher Quality. The Volunteer State has also given us the most compelling data on the impact of teachers on student achievement. Especially influential has been Sanders’s finding that students who, by luck of the draw, receive three bad teachers in a row fall desperately behind their peers. These and other findings have been used (you might even say “discovered,” since his research was not initially well publicized) by advocates like Education Trust to push for the Highly Qualified Teachers provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. Perhaps his conclusions were influential because they are intuitive: of course effective teachers matter a lot, and of course poor and minority students are less likely to have access to them. He provides the proof.  
  5. Coleman and his progeny. I have to go back four decades to cite the study that in my view paved the way to “standards-based reform” as we know it: James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity, and its many reanalyses (especially the Moynihan-Mosteller work) and follow-ons. By demonstrating the shaky relationship between school inputs and school results, Coleman made it inevitable that a country concerned with its skimpy results would eventually focus on specifying the better results that it wants. That logic inexorably carries you forward to standards, assessments, and results-based accountability.  

If I could offer a sixth, it would be Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, reaching even further back than Coleman but plainly the forerunner of “choice-based” reform—the other great source (with standards-based reform) of traction for change in K-12 education. 

Why have these and similar research efforts had such a large impact on policy? For most, timing was important. For several, it was also important to reach conclusions that affirmed the views or preferences of key advocates. But that’s not always the case. Coleman, for example, was fiercely resisted by almost all contemporaneous advocates and his real impact did not occur for many years. Each of these studies had the capacity to explain an important problem, and in some sense each portended a commonsense solution that policy makers (and journalists) could grasp. Methodology, however, didn’t turn out to be a major factor so long as the study could pass a basic test of credibility and fairness. 

Like almost all research in every field, the real influence of these studies has come not from the academy but from actions of advocates, policymakers, and journalists who were able to use these studies to devise, justify or sustain a reform agenda. Thus the research is less a source of change and more an “arsenal” for those already fighting the policy wars. 

I hope this is helpful—and am eager to learn what others tell you.