Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sorry State of Education Research

One of the biggest movements in education these days is to choose research-backed programs and reforms. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Education involves a ton of variables, which confound many attempts to figure out "what works."

For instance, the Gates Foundation's small schools initiative works great when you take a lousy, huge, failing high school and substitute smaller ones with high quality principals who have a lot of flexibility. Some early experiments in this concept featured schools with these qualities. But was the success because the schools were small or because of the principals and the flexibility? Other small schools experiments didn't turn out so well, particularly for gifted kids (because schools were split, and many educators didn't like the idea of ability grouping these small schools, gifted kids couldn't be concentrated, so the brightest kids became incredibly bored). Yet, across the country, school districts have seized on the small school concept... sometimes because of the availability of Gates money.

Likewise, every teachers union will tell you that "smaller class sizes" are the key to better school outcomes, and that this is proven by research. But this perceived truth is based on fewer studies than anyone will admit. And some countries with larger average class sizes than in the US do much better on international comparisons in math and science. So it's not clear that class sizes, by themselves, are the magic variable either.

So what is? And for the purposes of this blog, what works in gifted education? There's some research on ability grouping that shows better outcomes for both rapid learners and those who need a little more help. But this is certainly an area that could use more research. If large, rigorous studies showed that ability grouping helped both gifted kids and others learn better, more educators might change their views of such arrangements. Maybe. Then again, plenty of studies have shown that acceleration works (see "A Nation Deceived") but the prejudice against grade skipping remains alive and kicking.

The Davidson Institute has published a list of 12 Cost Effective Educational Options for gifted kids. More research backing up these 12 options with data would certainly be nice to see. I wonder if there are any other burning questions people would like to see answered? I hear, on occasion, from researchers looking into different educational topics, so I'd love to know if there are particular statistics that would make lobbying for gifted education programs easier. It's funny how putting a number to a problem or a solution changes the conversation.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many districts are adopting a 13th strategy: Do such a terrible job meeting the needs of the gifted student that the parents have no other option than to pull the child out and pay for private school or to homeschool. Think of all of the money they are saving!

Anonymous said...

Rarely a matter of public education money, perhaps thoughts of "all the money they are saving" relate to parents interested in full university scholarships for their child. "Think of all the money they are saving!"