The Role of Research in Schools

Education policy makers are often quick to claim that reforms they introduce are informed by research. Unfortunately, in education, there is usually a gap between research and practice. In the state of Mississippi, a study by the The Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) and The Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) found that established research-based principles of early-literacy instruction remain largely unapplied in teachers' preparation and practice. Teaching colleges fail to teach teachers practices that are currently supported by evidence. Consequently, practices that become widely used in classrooms are those unsupported by research. Often, these practices are even misinterpretations of what research says.

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The research work the study focused on that is found largely missing in teaching colleges' curriculum is not actually that recent. BRI and IHL looked at teacher preparatory programs in Mississippi to check if  evidence-based practices documented by the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) are in fact covered.

Langenberg captures the essence of the NRP report in his testimony to the US Senate back in 2000:
To become good readers, children must develop:
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics skills
  • The ability to read words in text in an accurate and fluent manner
  • The ability to apply comprehension strategies consciously and deliberately as they read
The NRP also adds that there is no clear evidence supporting the notion that reading silently to oneself improves reading fluency. However, the NRP does not discourage the practice of encouraging children to read on their own. What the NRP encourages is guided oral reading during which a child reads aloud to a teacher or parent or other students who can then provide immediate feedback.

Instead of emphasizing practices supported by research, the study finds responses from teachers that paint a preparatory program that is more concerned with form and not substance. Jackie Mader at the Hechinger Report describes the major findings of the study in the following paragraph:
The authors of the report spoke to aspiring educators in Mississippi’s teacher prep programs and found “very limited and conflicting knowledge” about how to teach early literacy skills. Some teacher prep students said their assignments failed to prepare them to teach reading, and for example, instead of being graded on the content of their work or given meaningful assignments, they were graded on the organization of their notebooks and were given tasks like reading 100 children’s books. Overall, research-based practices for teaching reading were found to be missing throughout teacher preparation programs in the state.
The NRP report finds that explicit instruction is necessary for phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and strategies for recalling information, formulating questions, and summarizing. These are all separate components with each one requiring our attention. Each one needs to be addressed and not merely embedded or appended.

When Mississippi started to assess third graders on reading, thousands failed. Mississippi also ranks below average in reading compared to other states. In the Philippines, exam scores of third graders are actually worse.

In English and Filipino, third graders are scoring far below the goal of 75 percent. One must therefore ask the question how teachers are being prepared and taught to teach.

A cursory look at DepEd's K to 12 curriculum in third grade English shows some of the elements recommended by the National Reading Panel in the US. However, one must ask the question of how possible it is to squeeze all of these components in two weeks.

There is certainly research that guides us on what practices are effective. The main problem is that the message often does not reach the teachers. This leaves teachers in a position where they are simply unable to judge what really works and what really is important. And even when they are told, they are left alone to figure out the implementation or application.