There is a chasm between research and practice.
Photo by g|e.
The Gates Foundation’s MET study was a grand success in K–12 research. But what happens next is what matters.
The very good news is that there is reason to believe that the report’s results might change behavior in meaningful and lasting ways.
The problem is that this is far from guaranteed. The Foundation itself will need to take the lead in translating this research into activity, and that will be its toughest role to date.
We should begin by acknowledging that the gap between policy and practice is huge. Mandating something and having it actually happen as envisioned are two entirely different things. We can see that in the struggles to implement high-minded, well-intentioned initiatives like NCLB choice and Common Core.
But there’s an even bigger chasm between research and practice. Very little makes it from one side to the other.
There are countless examples of powerful K–12 research findings that never get the traction deserved; consider Hanushek’s work on funding or Hoxby’s on choice. But the nearest cognate to MET is Chubb and Moe’s outstanding Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. With the possible exception of the Coleman Report, it’s all but impossible to find a study of K–12 schooling with a more powerful combination of theory, argument, and data.
And yet that books’ application has been muted at best, never influencing governance and systemic reform as it should have.
A large part of the explanation (tragically, per Chubb and Moe’s thesis) is politics. Our system must sort out competing demands and multiple goods. Research isn’t a trump card.
But scholars also are partially to blame. They, especially those based in universities, too often simply unleash their work via an obscure journal and sit back waiting for the world to automatically change everything it does accordingly. They seldom engage in the stuff of execution.
A final issue is unique to K–12 education. Because power is so diffuse, and because there are so many decision-makers and stakeholders, adequately disseminating information and influencing actors is a mind-bogglingly difficult undertaking.
At this point, you’re probably doubtful that MET will have much of an impact.
Don’t be. At least not yet.
The blessing is that this study was led by a gargantuan philanthropy. Gates not only had the wherewithal to commission and lead this research, but it also has a major policy and advocacy apparatus, an unfathomable endowment, and an extensive web of program officers funding entities across the K–12 landscape.
In other words, Gates is more than a brilliant but politically naive professor or insightful but under-resourced think tank. It is a full-service, vertically integrated education-reform organization with the ability to choreograph a complex, multi-pronged enterprise.
If any organization can bring MET’s lessons to bear, it’s the Gates Foundation. That should give you hope. And give them agita.
This will require uncommon deftness of leadership, including a D-Day–like coordination of activities.
The most obvious are those external to the organization. Fully realized, MET’s lessons will influence countless policies at the local (recruitment, PD, compensation, tenure), state (preparation, certification, evaluation), and federal (TIF, Title II) levels.
The study should also change the work of educator-preparation programs, especially those at institutions of higher education.
It should influence the two assessment consortia (PARCC and SB) as well as nonprofit and for-profit testing organizations.
It should alter just about everything associated with teacher observations, including the training of administrators, the rubrics they use, and the consultants who train them.
And it should touch many other fields like curriculum development, data systems, and student surveys.
The Foundation will need a sophisticated, synchronized strategy for this work.
But just as challenging will be the necessary work of reorienting the Foundation’s internal operations. MET’s lessons need to spread throughout the organization and inform most of its activities.
When talking to a governor, considering a grant to a CMO, assessing a district partnership, and so much more, the team will need to be on the same, new page.
This is far easier said than done. Like all organizations, it will have developed certain habits and practices. Its staff will have busy schedules, existing priorities, and ongoing work.
Creating new lines of activity will be tough; changing current activities (adjusting in some cases, overhauling in others) will be even tougher.
In an ideal world, the Foundation would be ahead of the curve on all of this and more. Foreseeing this moment, it would have created parallel tracks several years ago. The MET research train would have been in the lead with other program areas tracking it, learning and adjusting along the way.
Then with the report’s release, the other trains (programs and projects in all associated areas), fully fueled and with clear itineraries, would have accelerated, set off in different directions but part of a coordinated plan.
A central hub would be in contact with each regularly, making sure all are on the right path and made aware of developments. Each conductor empowered, though, to make course corrections as needed.
It would be terrific—the stuff of legend—if this were the case. But this is not generally how big organizations work. Information flows through them slowly; integrating their various work streams is thorny, and changing their direction is arduous.
But getting all of this done will be the difference between MET having a transformational effect on K–12 schooling and MET retiring to a dusty shelf alongside other once-promising studies.
It will take years to know how this story ends. But in the weeks to come, we’ll get an inkling of the plot.
Will there be a major speech by Foundation leadership outlining the MET implementation plan?
Will we quickly see MET playbooks for various fields within the sector?
Will we learn of MET-associated gatherings of similar Gates grantees?
Will we hear about a MET state-policy agenda?
Happily, the Foundation has the pen in its hand, author of the chapters to come.
Unfortunately, the wide distribution of K–12 authority, the sclerosis of big organizations, and the yawning gap between research and practice are notorious builders of writer’s block.