What Are the Most Important Education Research Findings in the Past 10 Years? (Opinion)
(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What do you think have been the most important education research findings from the past 10 years, and what areas are you hoping researchers focus on in the next 10 years?
There is so much education research out there, and much of it is inaccessible to K-12 teachers either because it’s written in arcane academic language or because it’s locked behind paywalls.
This series will try to highlight some of the most important findings that we teachers—and our students—can use.
Today, Beth M. Miller, Ph.D., and Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., share their reflections.
You might also be interested in many curated resources on ed. research at “Best” Lists of the Week: Education Research.
Beth M. Miller, Ph.D., serves as the chief knowledge officer at EL Education. She leads the research, communications, and publications teams while mostly being in complete awe of the mad skills of her brilliant, compassionate, committed colleagues:
What happens in the learning process? Why do some students thrive at school and learn more than others, and why does this variation often reflect socially constructed racial and ethnic categories? In the last 10 years, two streams of research have vastly expanded our understanding of the answers to these complex but never-more-important questions.
Stream One: Research on How Students Learn
We now know, with greater clarity and evidence than ever, that learning is a social, emotional, and cognitive process. While early “brain research” findings were beginning to emerge 10 years ago (e.g., plasticity of the brain), in the past decade, this knowledge has converged in a growing science of learning and development (SoLD) with many important implications for instructional practices, school climate, and district policy.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is deeply connected to academic achievement. We are increasingly learning that SEL can be developed in schools and that an integrated educational approach that deeply intertwines strands of social-emotional and academic development (versus teaching character as a siloed class on Tuesday mornings, for example) will be most effective.
Another key concept that has been developed through a body of evidence is the idea of mindset—how the student thinks of themself in relation to an idea or content will mediate their learning process and achievement. This insight from psychology, first developed by Carol Dweck, has resulted in a whole field of social psychology. Some of the short-term interventions have what seem like astounding results, because shifts in student mindset create a domino effect on motivation, self-efficacy, behavior, performance, and achievement.
For example, in several studies by David Yeager and his colleagues, teacher responses on a homework assignment communicating high expectations—and a belief that a student could reach these expectations—resulted in striking shifts in student academic performance over the course of a year. Teacher mindset also matters: When teachers who were trained on brain plasticity as it related to mathematics shifted their approach to teaching accordingly, doing so resulted in higher student achievement.
Stream Two: Research on the Impact of Racism in Education
Science of learning and development research can help to shift the dynamics of student experience and outcomes, but it is not enough to reach the goal we must attain: equitable learning opportunities and outcomes for all students. Another stream of research, less developed but equally imperative, is helping to uncover the ways that racism and other forms of marginalization create roadblocks to learning for millions of students and have throughout our history.
We can see this in the unequal financing of education between communities, the differences in teacher quality and facilities, and in the school experiences of millions of students. Despite the existence of brilliant students in every classroom and community, only some students will get the opportunity to develop to their full potential. In the last decade, research has highlighted how racism operates at every level of our education systems and, therefore, how to change it.
This body of research, often rooted in the theoretical work of scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings’ cconcept of “culturally relevant pedagogy” that she developed in the 1990s, includes ethnographic studies, correlational research, and quantitative large-scale studies, building a powerful body of evidence that racism and other forms of marginalization deeply and powerfully affect student achievement. Flipping the deficit-focused narrative of the “achievement gap” on its head, these researchers examine the resource gaps, opportunity gaps, racism, bias, and other processes and structures that drive differential experiences in school.
What we’ve learned might be a surprise to white people like me, but it only serves to expose the truth of what many people of color have experienced throughout their educational journey: Racism is deeply embedded in schools—by design, albeit often without conscious intention. Schools are a microcosm of our larger society. Without deep-seated, ongoing changes at multiple levels to shift that reality, racism remains a potent driver of school experiences and outcomes.
From research on the disproportionality of disciplinary practices to the impact on Black students of having even one Black teacher, we see racism—and other forms of marginalization—showing up anywhere we bring a lens to this study. We’ve learned a lot about the ways in which education policies, systems, and structures embed racism over the past decade. But that doesn’t mean individual teachers are off the hook: Multiple studies demonstrate the presence of negative perceptions and lower expectations of Black students on the part of many white teachers.
While deeply embedded policies and unconscious bias aren’t easy to shift, we are seeing evidence that it is not only possible to change these destructive dynamics, but also that this work significantly impacts student growth and learning. For example, a carefully designed training aimed at increasing teachers’ empathy for their students’ perspective by Jason Okonofua and colleagues shifted teachers from responding to behavior issues with punitive disciplinary practice to greater understanding and connection, leading to a 50 percent reduction in disciplinary actions. Other promising approaches, many rooted in culturally responsive education, from a community-center mathematics curriculum to the impact of ethnic–studies programs.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For the next 10 years, the most important work in education—whether in research studies or classrooms—will be in expanding the knowledge base where these two streams converge, i.e., combining what we know about how people learn, grow, and change with research that foregrounds the experiences and outcomes of historically marginalized students. After decades of education reforms that had little or no impact on the “stubborn” inequities in education, we have finally begun large-scale efforts to shift from measuring gaps to understanding why they exist and how we—not students—are the key to changing the dynamics. Some researchers, as well as organizations such as CASEL and the National Equity Project, are making progress, but we are in the early stages of this work. One thing we do know is that individual, incremental change will not create the equitable education system that our students deserve: Systemic changes in districts and charter networks will be needed, and we are only beginning the journey of creating the conditions at scale for all students to thrive.
One last note: We need to build on the current research base that demonstrates how disrupting racism benefits all students, including white students who will grow up in a diverse society. All students need the opportunity to experience what Rudine Sims Bishop coined “windows” as well as “mirrors” and deeply understand the multitude of experiences, histories, and perspectives we share in this country and around the world. Evidence that this learning matters—for all students—will help us create classrooms that enable us to build a better world.
Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., is professor emerita at California State University, Long Beach, where she was selected as Outstanding Professor. She is the co-developer of the SIOP Model of instruction for English-learners and the co-author of Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model and 99 Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners among other publications. Her blog is found at janaechevarria.com:
There are innumerable books, articles, and blogs written about what works with English-learners (ELs), but these resources don’t always reflect research-validated approaches and interventions. Empirical studies provide guidance for achieving desired outcomes that go beyond what intuitively seems like a good idea for teaching students in this population. The following areas of research are of particular importance in informing practice, especially for EL students.
Academic language. Cummins (1979) introduced the distinction between conversational language and academic language, and others more recently have discussed specific ways that academic language is challenging (Scheppegrell, 2020), particularly for English–learners. Academic language is more formal and abstract than conversational language and uses complex sentence structure (e.g., embedded clauses and conjunctions), highly sophisticated, abstract vocabulary (e.g., representational democracy in social studies), and rhetorical forms (e.g., figurative language), and it is encountered almost exclusively in school.
Research has identified the critical relationship of academic language to reading comprehension, a cognitive and linguistic process needed to acquire and use knowledge in every academic-content area. As EL students become more proficient in English, they become more efficient readers and more similar to their English-speaking peers in their reading ability. Conversely, if EL students don’t become sufficiently proficient in English, they expend more cognitive effort, and their reading remains inefficient, which negatively affects achievement and motivation.
The importance of advancing academic-language development is clear. Findings verify that ELs don’t “pick up” academic language nor will the achievement gap close without explicit instruction in English-language development (ELD). A separate ELD time each day focusing on English-language instruction is critical but may not be sufficient for expediting English-language growth. In every content lesson, teaching key content vocabulary and exploiting teachable academic language-learning opportunities likely will enhance English proficiency.
Student assets. The idea that students come to school as empty vessels in need of filling has been dispelled. Indeed, students begin school with a minimum of five years of lived experiences, accumulated knowledge, and language development in their home language, and these continue to grow with each subsequent year. This treasure trove should be acknowledged and built upon as students learn academic content in school.
For English-learners, some lived experiences are culturally influenced, such as attending quinceañeras or receiving red envelopes as gifts, and others are common to their age group such as popular social media sites, video games, and sports. Linguistic knowledge in their home language can be used to bootstrap learning in English. Studies suggest that instructional routines that draw on students’ home language, their knowledge, and cultural assets support literacy development in English. Some examples of practices used in studies include previewing and reviewing materials in children’s home language, providing opportunities for students to engage in conversations around text with peers using their home language when needed, giving definitions for key vocabulary terms in both English and their home language, and introducing key concepts by connecting them to students’ knowledge or experience in the home and community.
Teachers who don’t speak the language of their students shouldn’t be apprehensive about using these types of practices. Many technologies assist in translating words and definitions, and peers can be used as supports by grouping students with a common home language together for discussions, then asking each group to summarize their discussion in English. Further, as teachers practice a dynamic interaction style with students, they will learn about students’ lived experiences which, in turn, can be used to connect lesson content to what students know and have experienced.
Capitalizing on students’ linguistic and experiential assets by linking them to content, materials, and activities has motivational and engagement benefits and contributes to EL students’ sense of belonging and well-being.
Reading foundations. Much has been written recently about the science of reading, a discussion that spans decades. However, little research specifically addresses English-learners and how teaching reading may or may not differ for this population. Goldenberg (2020) conducted a review of research on reading and English-learners. He summarizes the findings and draws several conclusions. First, learning to read is similar for English-learners and English-speaking students. EL students must learn the same foundational skills as English-proficient students. As Goldenberg says, “Full-fledged literacy certainly requires more, but there is a reason this group of skills is called foundational: It is required for the literacy edifice under construction. As with any building, if all you have is a foundation, you do not have much. Yet, a solid foundation is still essential” (p.133).
Secondly, along with foundational skills, additional supports are required for EL students so that instruction in English is made comprehensible to them. They need additional instruction in the vocabulary found in text, especially for beginning speakers who are learning to recognize new words as they are read. Also beneficial is additional repetition and rehearsal as well as opportunities to practice. Specifically, beginning readers need practice in developing oral language, primarily in the form of effective ELD instruction to boost English proficiency.
Lastly, as EL students advance through the grades, the academic language required to navigate grade-level texts and the disciplinary knowledge students need to comprehend texts become increasingly complex and demanding. Oral English-language instruction and support needs to match the level of challenge for these students, particularly in language-intensive subjects.
Developing English proficiency arguably has the greatest impact on success in school. Understanding and responding to the specific ways that academic language is most efficiently developed might offer ways for teaching ELD most effectively and result in accelerated English acquisition. Current studies show the importance of oral language for ELs to improve early literacy, but which components of the interventions were most impactful remain unknown.
Secondly, the effects of different instructional arrangements on EL students’ achievement should be explored. Debate continues around issues such as whether pullout or push-in services are more effective, the optimal amount of time devoted to ELD instruction, and whether to group ELs together or with English-speaking peers. These are areas of practice that warrant investigation.
Thanks to Beth and Jana for contributing their thoughts.
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