Patricia Wasley

Dean, College of Education
University of Washington 

In response to Mike McPherson’s letter requesting our views on five examples of research that have had a positive impact on education, we suggest the following examples. 

  1. Early intervention research  This is a broad category that includes several strands of research. One strand is the early reading research, funded by foundations including Spencer (e.g., in the 2004 small grant to Astington, Baird and Peskin at OISE) as well as the federal government (e.g., NIH, NSF, the former OERI), that has illuminated the role of language processes in literacy acquisition, particularly phonemic awareness and its power as an early diagnostic index of potential reading disability. This research extends well beyond the work of a single research group and has provided the basis for reading curricula and many state and district-level intervention policies that have developed as a result of the No Child Left Behind legislation. 

    It should be noted, however, that the more one-dimensional examples of some of these policies are not necessarily appropriate, given that conclusions based on large samples and inferential statistics can provide only probabilistic information about potential sources of reading difficulties across children. As we have learned from work by Sheila Valencia, the underlying source of the difficulty experienced by any single child requires an individual diagnostic evaluation to determine his or her specific areas of difficulty. Dr. Valencia and her colleague Tom Stritikus currently have underway a related project examining the sources of difficulty for English language learners. Because research has taught us that reading difficulties have many sources (albeit some more likely than others), policy mandating a single intervention for all struggling readers is ill-conceived. 

    A second strand in the broad category of early intervention work is that involving the learning of very young children, including preverbal infants. Not only has the work with infants (exemplified by work by Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff) provided rich knowledge about the nature and the extent of learning during the first two years of life, but it has also provided methodologies to assess learning in other nonverbal populations, including children (and adults) with severe forms of autism and physical disabilities. 

    The multiple aspects of this work have advanced our understanding of early childhood development in general, allowing corresponding advancements in educational interventions for students with and without special needs. Research at the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit preschool, led by Ilene Schwartz, has shown that by using research-based interventions with young children with autism, we can help families learn to work more effectively with their children’s special needs and we can prepare many of those children for inclusion in regular education classrooms after preschool. The investment in early childhood programs pays off well beyond the families immediately involved. The field now has data from several longitudinal studies showing that every dollar invested in early childhood education saves eight dollars in areas such as later schooling, health care, and criminal justice. 
  2. Teacher knowledge research  This is another broad field that includes several strands. Most notable is the Spencer-funded work on teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge, led by Lee Shulman and colleagues including Pam Grossman, Deborah Ball, and Sam Wineburg. Other work by Arthur Baroody (funded recently by Spencer), and by Megan Franke and Elham Kazemi, among others, has focused on examining student work as a means by which to improve both teaching and learning. These multiple lines of research on teacher knowledge have moved analysis of teacher skill from the realm of behavioral checklists to one of reflective practice and intellectual expertise. Related work by Jim Spillane, Mike Knapp, Barbara Scott Nelson (with Spencer support) and others has focused a similar lens on the instruction-related knowledge of school leaders. Such a shift in thinking about the nature of teacher expertise set the stage for a movement toward professional development as leverage in educational reform, in contrast to top-down curriculum implementations of the “teacher-proof curriculum” variety. 
  3. Learning sciences  Work done by Ann Brown, Barbara Rogoff, John Bransford, and others has fundamentally changed our thinking about learning, teaching, and the contexts in which they take place. Much of this work has been summarized in the influential book, How People Learn, which was supported by the National Academy. The book has been translated into multiple languages and is reshaping the discussion about teaching and learning internationally. Evidence of the influence of this work is the establishment in the U.S. of four new learning sciences centers sponsored by NSF, including a center here at the University of Washington, from which we are expecting important discoveries about the relationships among multiple forms of learning—from neural learning to learning in formal and informal contexts (i.e., schools, home and community settings). 
  4. Multicultural education  This category includes the foundational work in multicultural education describing culturally responsive teaching, such as that of James Banks and Geneva Gay, as well as the “funds of knowledge” work, so-named by Luis Moll and practiced by researchers such as Carol Lee, Kathryn Au, and Bob Moses (again among others). The full impact of this work has yet to be realized, but given the changing demographics of schools in the U.S. (and around the globe) one cannot underestimate the importance of recognizing the intellectual resources that all students bring to the classroom. With knowledge resulting from this line of work and from the learning sciences, we can better prepare teachers to bridge students’ out-of-school knowledge into school contexts, and similarly bridge more traditionally defined school subjects to meaningful contexts beyond the school walls, thereby increasing the likelihood of meaningful educational, social and economic change. 
  5. School improvement research and related methodological advancements Also influential has been the work on large-scale school reform. Milbray Mclaughlin’s research on learning communities continues to influence how we design professional development. Ted Sizer’s work on American high schools, Tony Bryk’s work with Chicago schools, and John Goodlad’s work reported in A Place Called School have shaped the national dialogue about approaches to improving schools and have led to several strands of action (e.g., the small schools work funded to a significant extent by the Gates Foundation, authentic assessment research, Fred Newmann’s work on authentic instruction, and the reform efforts in Manhattan District 2). It is important to note that many of these large-scale projects have benefited from the development of methodologies such as hierarchical linear modeling (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002), which enable researchers to capture the multi-layered nature and longitudinal nature of much educational data (i.e., child within classroom, within school, within district, all across time). 

We have also included some thoughts about future directions: 

There are many problems in education that truly need research funds. If the nation's schools of education were funded to do research on the nation's most pressing educational problems, then we might actually make some progress. While the Carnegie Corporation and others are making a substantial contribution toward creating an evidence-based, well researched case for university-based teacher education, funding for teacher education research has been chronically under funded. We need funds to do longitudinal work to determine the relationship between evidence of fit between teacher education programs and a teacher's early career, as well as between teacher preparation and student learning. 

In subject matter learning we are desperate for funds to build a research-based field of secondary literacy. Much of the achievement problem stems from adolescent reading problems, and despite the loudly touted success of the federally funded work in early reading, we have not solved all of America’s problems in the area of literacy (as recent NAEP data indicate). Secondary teachers are not prepared to teach reading, and we don't know enough about the particular reading demands embedded in various disciplines. Work underway by Kim Gomez at University of Illinois Chicago currently funded by NSF needs to be expanded for scale up. Further, we need the same kind of research in secondary mathematics because it is such a gate keeper for college admissions. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation, the federal research budget has been cut severely, and the funds that remain have largely gone to support standards development, test development and implementation, and reading. We need new research in civics education and in history and social studies education to determine how American high schools are dealing with the globalization of our world and our place within it. Further, we need additional work on bilingual learning, on the advantages of multilingualism, and how best to support language learning (beyond English) in school. 

We appreciate the opportunity to share our thoughts, and we hope our reflections are of use to you.