Research Matters / Moving to Evidence-Based Professional Practice - ASCD
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March 1, 2006

Research Matters / Moving to Evidence-Based Professional Practice

Schools have recently begun to place increased emphasis on the use of rigorous research evidence in guiding instructional decisions. These efforts have been partly inspired by the No Child Left Behind Act's insistent call for the use of “scientifically based” research. As educators, however, we are driven by a much more powerful force than legislative mandates: We sincerely want to know that our actions will help students succeed. How can we harness the power of scientific research on behalf of the students we serve?

What We Know

  • Too few rigorous and relevant studies. Every educator searching for research to help improve practice has encountered the frustrating fact that programs, practices, and policies in education are rarely subjected to rigorous evaluation. In part, this is the result of the limited resources currently devoted to education evaluation. For example, a 2004 survey of state education departments' evaluation activities concluded that “most states infrequently evaluate their programs, if at all” (Raymond, Bortnik, & Gould, 2004, p. vii). In addition, much of the existing research in education simply does not meet the needs of educators. Recently, in a U.S. Department of Education-commissioned focus group representative of education policymakers, many respondents “criticized existing research for its overly theoretical and academic orientation” (Huang, Reiser, Parker, Muniec, & Salvucci, 2003, p. 16). As one veteran school superintendent exclaimed, “There may be less than one percent of the existing research that's really meaningful to teachers.... Teachers need strategies, practices. Give them things that can help teaching and learning” (p. 16).

  • Difficulty in locating and applying existing research. Unfortunately, studies are often published in inaccessible sources. Even when relevant and rigorous research is available, educators find the studies hard to use because they are often written in dense scientific language and presented in unappealing formats (Rickinson, 2005). Further, few research studies help educators draw implications for their own practice (Kohlmoos & Joftus, 2005). Surprisingly, the same challenge exists in the medical field, which many people hold up as an example for education to emulate in building evidence-based practice. A recent in-depth interview study of the research needs of health care policy professionals found that most studies fall short because they do “not draw inferences or provide implications for policymakers and can be used to support many different positions” (Sutton & Thompson, 2001).

  • Distrust of research. The scarcity of useful research and the difficulty in applying it to practice, as well as its frequent use to promote a variety of political agendas, all contribute to skepticism on the part of educators regarding the value of education research. For example, in Huang and colleagues' (2003) education policymaker focus group, many respondents criticized the “political and marketing bias and contamination” found in some research. Further, the professional culture of some schools and districts contributes to the reluctance to use research as a guide to practice. Corcoran (2003), in his study of three urban districts seeking to promote evidence-driven improvement, noted that a significant difficulty was the “inability of district and school staff to put aside old patterns of decision-making that focused on philosophy or the ‘goodness’ of an option, rather than evidence of its effectiveness” (p. 7).

What You Can Do

  • Explore ways to strengthen the connection between research and practice. The National Education Knowledge Industry Association (NEKIA) has launched a knowledge use initiative (<LINK URL=""></LINK>) aimed at examining how research knowledge is developed, applied, and used in K–12 education.

  • Decipher and apply research. The February 2003 issue ofEducational Leadership provides “A Reader's Guide to Scientifically Based Research” (Slavin, 2003). And in January 2006, the What Works Clearinghouse launched an online Evidence-Based Education Help Desk, including “Resources to Identify and Implement Evidence-Based Interventions” (<LINK URL=""></LINK>).

  • Learn more about using scientific approaches to improve learning. In September 2005, the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement (<LINK URL=""></LINK>) launched “Harnessing the Scientific Spirit to Improve Learning,” a weekly series of Web-based podcasts that discuss employing scientifically based research to raise student achievement.

  • Consult credible, timely, and usable evidence reviews. Both the Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center (<LINK URL=""></LINK>) and the What Works Clearinghouse (<LINK URL=""></LINK>) offer consumer-oriented, systematic reviews of existing evidence that enable educators to confidently select research-supported programs and approaches to help meet local needs.

Educators Take Note

Like all advances in education, moving to evidence-based professional practice requires the leadership and hard work of teachers, principals, central office administrators, superintendents, parents, and community members. The research community—including state and district personnel and program developers—must also commit to improving its evaluation efforts. But in the end, evidence-based professional practice will only become a reality when educators embrace the scientific spirit and seek out and apply programs and practices that truly demonstrate their effectiveness.


Corcoran, T. (2003, November). The use of research evidence in instructional improvement. (CPRE Policy Brief, RB-40). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Huang, G., Reiser, M., Parker, A., Muniec, J., &amp; Salvucci, S. (2003).Institute of Education Sciences: Findings from interviews with education policymakers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Kohlmoos, J., &amp; Joftus, S. (2005, August).Building communities of knowledge: Ideas for more effective use of knowledge in education reform. (NEKIA Discussion Paper). Washington, DC: National Education Knowledge Industry Association.

Raymond, M. E., Bortnik, K., &amp; Gould, R. (2004, April).Program evaluation capacity in state departments of education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Hoover Institution, Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Rickinson, M. (2005, October). Practitioners' use of research: A research review for the National Evidence for Education Portal (NEEP) Development Group. (Working Paper). London: National Educational Research Forum.

Slavin, R. E. (2003). A reader's guide to scientifically based research.Educational Leadership, 60(5), 12–16.

Sutton, S. M., &amp; Thompson, E. (2001). An in-depth interview study of health care professionals and their research needs. Social Marketing Quarterly, VII(4), 16–26.

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