Finding what works in education

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After diagnosing a patient with a heart condition, a good doctor may turn to clinical research to determine the best treatment that is likely to work for that patient. But where does a teacher, school administrator, or policymaker go to find out what might work to help a struggling primary school reader or maths student?

For many years, educators had little to choose from, beyond asking their colleagues for recommendations or sorting through academic studies.  Many lacked the training needed to determine which studies were worth heeding and which were better ignored. Translating findings into practical changes that make a difference in student learning is also challenging. As a result, some curricula and products with limited effectiveness continue to be used. Educators and staff who make purchasing decisions need better information to ensure that products live up to their claims.  

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), founded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in 2002, helps educators by sifting through research on the multitude of strategies and programs promising to improve student learning. 

The WWC fills a vital need by summarizing, assessing, and disseminating its reviews of education research. Educators can use these summaries to decide about curricula to implement, products to purchase, and methods to use in their classrooms and schools. And the rising cost of implementing new and more effective tools underscores the utility of the WWC’s work - for example, before a school district spends millions on a new curriculum, it needs convincing evidence the new curriculum is likely to work. 

The WWC provides these resources to practitioners, school leaders, and researchers to help inform their decisions about how to enhance student learning:

  • User-friendly practice guides, the most popular WWC product for educators, focus on specific topics, such as reducing behavior problems in the primary school classroom, teaching English language learners, and using student achievement data to improve student learning.  Well-known experts and practitioners draft the guides, translating research findings into clear recommendations for classrooms and schools to address everyday instructional challenges. Teachers and principals can use practice guides as a framework for solving problems in their classrooms and schools. To date, the WWC has released 12 guides, which have been downloaded over 400,000 times. 
  • Intervention reports are comprehensive reviews of research on educational products, programs, and practices in specific areas, such as adolescent literacy, special education, early childhood education, and dropout prevention. The WWC reviews interventions according to established evidence standards. Intervention reports explain the level of effectiveness for each intervention, giving educators and decision makers the information needed to make informed, research-based decisions. 
  • Quick reviews are one-page analyses of the quality of the research in recent studies widely publicized in the media. These reviews assess whether the research meets WWC standards.  Recent quick reviews have assessed recess and classroom behavior, performance-pay programs for teachers, and an approach that teaches scientific concepts using everyday language.

In the same way that top-notch medical research has helped people to live longer and more productive lives, quality education research has great potential to foster more effective learning.  If teachers, heads, researchers, and LAs collaborate to learn more about instructional practices, educational programs, and curriculum strategies that work, applying this knowledge in schools and classrooms will also become easier.

Visit the WWC at whatworks.ed.gov and learn more about practice guides, intervention reports, and quick reviews.

By Mark Dynarski

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