Building education's watershed moment

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American lived to be about 50 years old. One hundred years later, nearly three decades have been added to that lifespan, due in no small part to advances in public health: immunization and control of infectious disease, safer and healthier food, motor vehicle safety, fluoridation of drinking water, and recognizing the dangers of tobacco use.

Public health's watershed advances occur in part because public policy and awareness are intertwined with medical practice and research, mutually reinforcing one another. Research teaches us about the ill effects of smoking; doctors discourage their patients from smoking; policymakers raise taxes on cigarettes, pass laws curtailing who can buy and sell them and where people are allowed to light up. Eventually the combined forces become overwhelming. The habit is seen as dangerous, expensive, and socially unacceptable. Fewer Americans purchase cigarettes, and even those who do become reluctant to expose their children to tobacco smoke. Behavior changes. Quality of life improves.

American education has enjoyed no such golden era, largely because education force multipliers too seldom act in concert. Those who work in education research, policy, and practice frequently fail to communicate with one another, and when they do, each faction speaks a different language. David Steiner is out to change that. Steiner, perhaps best known in education circles as the former New York state education commissioner, was appointed this summer to lead a new policy institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he's set himself to the formidable task of breaking apart what he calls the "silos" of education research, policy, and practice.

For example, Steiner observed that there is a significant body of high-quality research demonstrating that teacher quality has the greatest in-school impact on student learning. Yet examples abound of policymakers ignoring that research. "Between letting almost anyone with a B.A. and minimal classroom experience teach and then paying and treating them accordingly, we are ignoring one of the most powerful pieces of research and deeply damaging the life opportunities of our students," he says.

To be sure, there have been significant changes in teaching practices driven by research. Few dispute the need for very young children to get systematic phonics instruction, for example, when learning to read. But perhaps more than any other profession, teaching too often prizes theory, philosophy, and personal preference over evidence-based practice. Even accounting has "generally accepted accounting principles" – a common set of principles, standards, and procedures that companies use to keep their books. Nothing of the kind exists in teaching.

What would it look like if policy, practice, and research were working together? Steiner cites the example of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's recent announcement that the city will spend $75 million to hire reading specialists in the hope of getting every child reading by second grade. "The crucial issue that never gets discussed in the public arena is the issue of implementation," Steiner says. "So for example, what reading content and reading strategies are those reading coaches going to use? How do we know if they've been trained to use it? And is that strategy based on good evidence of success?"

The elephant in the room is local control, which is stamped on the genetic code of the American education system. The federal government has a modest role politically, and no control constitutionally, over the nation's 14,000 school districts, many of which are wedded to their own visions, habits and practices. Plus nearly every stakeholder went to school and views themselves as an authority. "There is a tendency to think 'we're all experts at education. We've all been to school. How complicated can it be? I know what a school is and how it works,'" Steiner notes. The result is often an immune response to anything that smacks of outside control of education.

Steiner is undeterred: "That's not a reason to create education policies which have no research basis at all. Or worse, where the research base suggests that the policy is going to do damage to students." The opposite also holds true: Strong evidence of positive outcomes often gets ignored. Steiner offers the example of Chicago Public Schools' introduction of the demanding International Baccalaureate program into their regular high schools. "While excellent research shows that Chicago's students who completed the program benefited greatly, I doubt whether one school superintendent in ten has heard about that research," Steiner remarks. "Part of our job [must be] to take that research, put it in English, and show why it was powerful, show what it costs, and bring it to those who can use it."

The work starts this fall. Already, the institute has scheduled an open event in New York City focused on what Steiner calls our "aversion to teaching demanding academic content to underprivileged students," another practice that flies in the face of evidence from both the United States and abroad.

The task is long-term and tough, but Steiner brings an unusual set of experiences to bear: leadership at the federal, state and university level combined with the intellectual background of a senior professor. Johns Hopkins knew what it was doing.

A slightly different version of this article originally ran in U.S. News & World Report.

Сергей Хакимуллин/iStock/Thinkstock

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.