The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Office of Congressional and government Affairs
At A Glance
: Education Research: Is What We Don't Know Hurting Our Children?
: 10/26/1999
Session: 106th Congress (First Session)
: Alexandra K. Wigdor

Associate Executive Director, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences, National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council

: House
: Committee on Science

Testimony of

Associate Executive Director
Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences
National Academy of Sciences
National Research Council

before the

Subcommittee on Basic Research
Committee on Science
House of Representatives


Hearing on Education Research: Is What We Don't Know Hurting Our Children

October 26, 1999

Good afternoon. I bring with me greetings from Dr. Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, who shares your concern to make the power of scientific research more available to teachers and more a part of the education of our children. I'm here today to talk to you about the National Research Council's Strategic Education Research Plan (SERP). There have been many such research programs in health, defense, aeronautics, and even highway research (which was the immediate inspiration for SERP). But in education, this proposal is novel. It sets out to undertake what the field has been sorely lacking: sustained research that is scientifically rigorous, and focused on the practical problems of improving teaching and learning. The Strategic Education Research Plan is undergirded by three important propositions:

Proposition 1: There is an emerging science of learning that has important implications for the design of curricula, instruction, assessment, and learning environments. Education, like health, is an exceedingly complex field because its subject is individual human beings, and no two are alike. That fact leaves both fields open to claims of panaceas, and a multitude of fads about what works best. However, when scientific standards are high and funding is adequate, research can produce findings with practical relevance that can change the lives of millions of children as well as the adults who are entrusted with teaching them.

This proposition is more than simple conjecture. Last year, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report (funded by the Department of Education, with additional support from the National Institute for Child Health and Development) called Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children that draws on a large research base to highlight what we can conclude with confidence about teaching children to read. This report--the Academy's number two best seller--has sold 36,000 copies to date and is still selling strong. Our number one best seller is a popular version of the reading report that is replete with examples and activities for parents or teachers. Starting Out Right has sold more that 50,000 copies since its publication last December. This is research penetrating at the family and school level.

Another report released this year (also funded by the Department of Education's Office of Education Research and Improvement) is How People Learn, Brain, Mind, Experience and School. How People Learn is the product of a three-year effort by an interdisciplinary committee to synthesize what we know about human learning and to draw out the implications for schooling. The exciting conclusion from the How People Learn study is that scientific research in the past few decades has produced some important and straightforward implications for how we can improve education and student achievement. For purposes of brevity, I will mention just two of

the key findings: 1.)First, to develop competence in any discipline, students must have both a deep foundation of factual knowledge and they must understand facts in the context of a conceptual framework.

For decades we have debated whether schools need to be teaching facts, or whether they need to focus on big ideas. Substantial research on the differences between experts and novices makes it absolutely clear that both are crucial. Experts, regardless of the field, always draw on a deep, richly structured information base-i.e., facts. They are not just good thinkers or smart people. The ability to plan a task, to notice patterns, to generate reasonable arguments and explanations, and to draw analogies to other problems are all closely intertwined with factual knowledge.

At the same time, the key to making that factual foundation "usable" knowledge is the mastery of concepts. The concepts are what allow experts to see patterns and relationships, or discrepancies that are not apparent to novices. Not only are we wrong in thinking there is a tradeoff between the teaching of facts and of concepts, but research demonstrates that factual information is better remembered and retrieved when it is tied to concepts or "big ideas."

2.)A second, powerful finding is that highly competent people have well-developed processes for defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. Experts and high achieving students make note of when they need additional information, whether new information is consistent with what they already know, and what analogies can be drawn to advance their understanding. Obviously, much of this monitoring goes on as an internal dialogue, but the monitoring process can be very effectively taught in a classroom environment in which the teacher models the monitoring and guides students eventually along the path of self- monitoring. The research suggests that in a variety of subject areas-reading, science, math, writing-these skills improve the achievement of all students. But they help low achieving students most. hi some cases, initially low achieving students who have mastered the monitoring skills thoroughly are barely distinguishable in their performance from high achieving students.

Proposition 2: Researchers, educators and policy makers can work together in a partnership that can improve the effectiveness of all. Though the principles I have just highlighted have tremendous relevance for classroom teaching, for the most part research and practice are distant relatives. Research findings stay in the hands (and the books) of researchers, and the daily struggles of teachers are confined to the schoolhouse. A year ago, OERI requested that the National Research Council put together a research agenda that would help move the findings from How People Learn into classroom practice. The NRC involved teachers, principals, school administrators, and policy makers in a conference and a workshop that were instrumental in shaping the agenda presented in the report, How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. This report combines the expertise of some of our country's most outstanding education researchers with the concerns and practical knowledge of those in the fields of educational practice and policy.

Proposition 3: The time is right for this initiative: the field of educational practice is hungry for research that is applicable to the everyday task of educating children. Since we published How People Learn, we have had numerous opportunities to speak with audiences of teachers, principals, and school district administrators about its findings. The response has been an unexpected level of enthusiasm; when it is made applicable to their work, educators find research fascinating As schools are being held more accountable by policy makers and the public for student achievement, educators are looking for help.

But the help that educators need goes beyond an explication of learning principles of the kind offered in How People Learn. Teachers can be persuaded of the importance, for example, of teaching both factual knowledge and key concepts. But they also need to walk into a classroom with the teaching tools and the professional training experiences that equip them to make the connection between facts and the key concepts to which those facts can be tied. They need a public that understands and shares their vision, and school administrators and policy makers who support it.

Such coordination of training, education materials, policy making, and public opinion takes time, and in education new ideas come and go with remarkable speed. The key is to carry rigorous research efforts through to classroom applicability. And the key to carry-through is sustained, focused research. That is what the Strategic Education Research Plan is about.


The Strategic Education Research Plan-- or SERP--proposes to bring together teachers, researchers, administrators and policy makers in a collaborative effort that draws on the strengths of all, and that is sustained over a fifteen year period. The SERP goal is to focus the efforts of researchers on issues that challenge teachers in the classroom; to bring the worlds, the understandings, and the interests of teachers and researchers closer together.

The SERP proposal is that four "networks," each involving members from all of these groups, be developed and sustained over a fifteen year period, with each network assigned a "strategic" question. The four key questions are the following:

1)How can advances in research on human cognition, development, and learning be incorporated into educational practice? This network would expand and carry through the work begun with the How People Learn volumes.

2)How can student engagement in the learning process and motivation to achieve in school be increased? Even well prepared teachers equipped with the best teaching materials will not be effective if students are not interested in learning. This network would explore systematically what we know about, and how we can effect, student motivation to learn.

3)How can schools and school districts be transformed into organizations that have the capacity to continuously improve their practices? What we know about how people learn makes clear that effective education is not something that can be packaged and sold to teachers. Schools need to become learning communities, continuously testing and improving their practices. How to bring about so major a change in the structure and behavior of schools would be the concern of the third network.

4)And finally, how can the use of research knowledge be increased in schools and school districts? Many of the findings discussed in How People Learn are drawn from research that has been published for some time. We know, for example, that teaching children to monitor their thinking process (termed inetacognition) can dramatically improve the achievement of all students, and has the greatest benefits for low achievers. Programs like "reciprocal teaching" have been around for some time, and have been demonstrated to effectively teach metacognitive skills. But the large majority of schools do not engage in anything resembling reciprocal teaching. Similarly, we know that mastering skills may require drill, but not all drill is alike. Research on "effective practice" has direct application to every school, but we are a far cry from every school being aware of that research. This fourth network would focus on the changes required to make the link between researchers and teachers more direct.

Full details of the SERP proposal are provided in the recently released report, Improving Student Learning:, A Strategic Education Research Plan that we have made available to the committee. Briefly, the networks would survey what is known with regard to the hub question, and develop agendas that would promote a systematic effort to make advances in important areas where our knowledge is limited. They would design and carry out new research activities. Much of the research, for example pilot studies and project evaluations, would be conducted in the schools. The networks would also hold events such as conferences and workshops that would bring together the relevant communities engaged in the education enterprise, and make what is known--and what is being learned--more visible.


Let me summarize by emphasizing the plan's key features: it is focused, multidisciplinary and collaborative, cumulative, sustained, and solutions oriented.

SERP is focused. By design, SERP is focused on just four hub research questions that hold great promise for strengthening learning in our schools. This strategic focus will help harness the nation's powerful intellectual resources and expertise, making the networks more productive, more closely linked to classroom practice, and more accountable for demonstrable progress. Focus has been key to advances in many other areas- health, defense, aeronautics--where science and public policy have overlapped. As has happened in those areas, ongoing, focused efforts will allow graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who are finding a place for themselves in the research world to join in and contribute to an important, directed effort. Similarly, it will allow new teachers to see their profession as one with more opportunity for ongoing engagement in an evolving understanding of effective learning and teaching, and it will give some of our best teachers an opportunity to share their knowledge and skill more broadly.

SERP is multidisciplinary and collaborative. Finding answers to each of the hub questions will require the combined insights of many fields--including cognitive functioning, social processes, and organizational change. Asking the right questions will require the wisdom of those who are deeply engaged in practice, and the insights of policy makers. The organization of the effort through carefully coordinated networks of researchers, educators, and policy experts will promote the needed cross-fertilization that is commonly missing from current research efforts.

SERP is cumulative. It recognizes that the traditional linear model of research that runs from basic to applications has not been productive in changing complex social systems like education. It envisions a new model of research, combining elements of field- initiated and program-driven research within a structure that will encourage a continuous process of taking stock so that each stage builds on what has been learned. Research or demonstration in applied settings are as likely to define the next basic research questions as vice versa.

SERP is sustained. It will keep a community involved in seeking answers to the hub questions over a fifteen year period, making the solid research designs that are often more time intensive (like longitudinal studies) feasible.

SERP is solutions oriented. It will involve practitioners and policy makers in helping to define problems, devise solutions, and monitor the effects of research-based approaches. This built in partnership with the policy and practice communities should have the healthy side-effect of cultivating a greater readiness on the part of local communities and schools to view research as a source of solutions for educational problems.


Where should the governance of the Strategic Education Research Plan reside? The SERP committee made no attempt to answer the question, though it acknowledged its tremendous importance to the success of the enterprise. The report suggests several possibilities: a federal agency or interagency partnership, a federal-state partnership, a consortium of foundations, or a public-private partnership. The NRC has proposed a year of dialogue and planning involving all of these groups. This would allow for consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of each alternative, as well as suggest the level of willingness and commitment among the various potential partners.