The Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) is a proposed large-scale, sustained program of education research and development (R&D). Its purpose is to provide a powerful knowledge base, derived from both research and the study of practice, that can support the efforts of teachers, school administrators, colleges of education, and policy officials to improve student learning. The defining feature of SERP is the tight coupling of research and practice: effective educational practice is both the goal and the subject of the R&D program. Program priorities will be negotiated among practitioners, policy makers, and researchers, and practitioners will work in collaboration with researchers in the execution of the program.
The SERP committee, in its report A Strategic Education Research Partnership, proposes an organizational design for carrying the SERP mission forward. At the heart of that design are networks through which focused, coordinated, and sustained programs of R&D are carried out, often in schools or school districts that serve as field sites. At full function, SERP would have multiple networks. In the start-up years, the committee proposes three, one of which would be a learning and instruction network.
To provide a more detailed vision of the program a SERP network might undertake, a separate SERP panel was convened to design an illustrative agenda for the learning and instruction network. To narrow program focus, the panel asked two questions:
Are there examples of rigorous research and development efforts that already show impressive gains in student achievement in research trials? These would provide
the starting point for R&D that is intended as one of the hallmarks of SERP: following promising program outcomes with research on the circumstances under which the results are obtained, the feasibility of the intervention in the classroom and the school context, the teacher knowledge and support required for success, and the organizational factors that influence outcomes. We refer to these as “downstream” cases because the work in these areas has already traveled some distance toward classroom usability.
Are there pervasive problems of practice that are widely recognized as critical, but for which the knowledge base is too weak to guide instructional practice? We refer to these as the “upstream” cases because the work is still in early stages. Since there are few promising interventions in these areas at present, an impact on practice is likely to require more time.
The panel recommends three areas for focus: reading, mathematics, and science. In both mathematics and reading, the proposed downstream work would address learning in the elementary years. In science, in contrast, the downstream work is in physics—a subject generally taught in high school—because of the strength of the research base. The upstream research proposed for the three domains focuses on reading comprehension, algebra, and the sequencing and content of science instruction across the school years.
There is an unusual degree of consensus regarding the goals of early reading instruction, as well as a fairly solid research base both on the contributors to success in achieving those goals and on assessments to predict reading difficulties. The targets of early reading instruction are therefore fairly clear.
Still, many children in U.S. schools are not learning to read well and, in many classrooms, teaching practices have not been influenced by research knowledge. In the panel’s view there is a
gap between the knowledge base on the contributors to success in early reading and the knowledge base on effective instruction and teacher knowledge requirements. The goal must be to move from principles of good literacy instruction to the practices and programs that will support it. We propose three initiatives for early reading:
development and testing of instructional approaches to narrowing the gap in early reading preparedness, with emphasis on programs to enrich oral language skills for children at ages 3, 4, and 5 and for native and nonnative English speakers;
the development and testing of models of integrated reading instruction for early elementary grades; and
research on the knowledge requirements for teachers of early reading, coupled with the development and evaluation of teacher education programs and tools and the development and validity testing of assessment measures to evaluate their effectiveness.
Many students who learn to read successfully nonetheless do poorly at reading comprehension. There is remarkably little instruction to support reading comprehension in schools, perhaps because there is little science-based understanding of how comprehension builds or how to support its development over the years.
We propose four initiatives for reading comprehension:
research and development of formative and summative assessments of reading comprehension that capture the multiple components of effective comprehension and that span the school years;
research and development of instructional materials, protocols, and supports at different grade levels for teachers who are learning to use metacognitive strategy instruction in the classroom;
research on the instructional practices of teachers whose students “beat the odds” in their reading comprehension performance, with companion efforts to test the emerging hypotheses and incorporate tested
practices into systematic instructional programs that can be tested experimentally across a range of students;
research to support the development of benchmarks for reading comprehension across the school years.
Investment in recent decades by federal agencies and private foundations has produced a wealth of knowledge on the development of mathematical understanding and numerous curricula that incorporate that knowledge. Existing evaluations of some of these curricula suggest the potential to substantially improve student achievement outcomes, in some cases raising the performance of disadvantaged students to the level of their more advantaged counterparts. But adequate research has not been done to independently and rigorously evaluate the programs, to compare outcomes across these programs and with more traditional curricula, to study the teacher knowledge requirements the programs entail, and to consider the requirements for taking the programs to scale.
We propose three initiatives for early mathematics:
development of early mathematics assessments that capture the range of understanding and skills involved in mathematical proficiency, with companion research and development efforts aimed at identifying and providing the supports needed by teachers to use assessments effectively in teaching;
research and development on the knowledge required to teach elementary mathematics, on alternative approaches to teacher education that would support that knowledge development, and on the teacher supports required to take promising curricula to scale; and
independent evaluation and comparison of curricular approaches to the teaching of number and operations that vary on distinct and theoretically impor
tant dimensions, with further research and development of component features of particular interest.
Algebra is crucial to the development of mathematical proficiency because it functions as the language system for ideas about quantity and space and is foundational for much other mathematics. However, there is currently little agreement regarding the content that should be included in the algebra curriculum or the instructional approach that is most effective.
We propose four initiatives aimed at improving algebra learning and instruction:
research and development on alternative approaches in the teaching and learning of algebra, with controlled experimentation at the level of particular program features, with a companion effort to extend existing curricula in promising directions;
research on the knowledge of mathematics needed to teach algebra effectively at different grade levels and research and development on effective teacher education interventions;
research and development of algebra assessments for the range of grade levels and the range of assessment purposes; and
study of students’ algebra proficiency over time with the introduction of algebra as a K-12 topic.
The existing knowledge base in physics education is relatively advanced. It includes the development and testing of exemplary instructional programs, with outcomes that suggest the possibility of a much deeper conceptual understanding of the subject, and by a broader range of students than are typically successful at physics today. We propose three initiatives designed to take research-based knowledge into the classroom:
refining the knowledge base on instructional programs to better distinguish the programs and their outcomes from each other and to identify the conditions and the contexts that typically accompany success;
research on the requirements to take promising physics curricula to scale in different school contexts, with companion efforts to develop supports for independent use of a curriculum;
research on teacher knowledge requirements for effective use of a curriculum and how that knowledge builds with teacher learning opportunities and experience.
SCIENCE EDUCATION ACROSS THE SCHOOL YEARS
International and national test scores highlight the weakness of K-12 science education in the United States. There are some indications that the absence of an agreed-on content for K-12 science instruction and the broad coverage of topics typical in science textbooks have led to weak development of scientific concepts over the school years. Improvement will require that choices be made that narrow the set of topics to be covered, and that instructional approaches to developing a deeper understanding of scientific concepts be identified or developed and evaluated for their outcomes. We propose three initiatives toward that end:
development and evaluation of integrated learning-instruction models aimed at identifying a productive organizing core for school science across the grades, with component curriculum and assessment research and development that extends existing promising efforts;
research and development on teacher knowledge requirements to effectively work with the curriculum under study; and
an ongoing effort to identify the feasibility and required commitments to achieve standards for science achievement.
ENSURING RESEARCH QUALITY AND IMPACT
The research agenda that we propose would represent a major, long-term investment in education research and development. We note in conclusion some of the features of the SERP organization, and of the agenda, that support both the quality of that investment and the likelihood that it will have an impact on practice.
To ensure quality, method is carefully matched to the question under study. No single methodology is favored in the agenda. We propose programs of research motivated by significant questions of educational practice and draw on the variety of methodologies required both to understand processes and to rigorously test outcomes.
The proposed program would have the ability to investigate empirically the problems of instructional practice in SERP field sites at which high-quality data can be collected longitudinally. The agenda calls for careful attention at the start to the development and testing of outcome measures, work that is often overlooked in research, but that is critical to the quality and interpretability of the results.
Since much of the research and development will take place in field sites, the R&D teams will be able to document critical elements of context; important differences among students from one classroom or school to the next can substantially affect outcomes. At the same time, no matter how carefully a single study is designed, confidence in results can be ensured only when they are replicated. Hence, the SERP agenda emphasizes both replication of research findings and testing of their range of applicability.
Impact requires actively seeking out high-quality research that is important for educational practice and building on it. But impact also requires the design of research studies that can take the knowledge from practice and incorporate it into testable propositions that can be shared publicly. Much of what teachers learn from repeated observation of student learning and response to instruction is never formally articulated, tested, or shared with others in their professional community. Proposed research designed to learn from practice can formalize the knowl
edge of teachers, subject it to testing, and make those results available to be publicly shared and scrutinized.
And finally, to ensure quality oversight, the SERP research would be subject to both internal and external scrutiny and critique.
The work we propose here has the potential to substantially improve the knowledge base to support teaching and learning by pursuing answers to questions at the core of teaching practice. It calls for a linking of research and development—of instructional programs, assessment tools, teacher education programs and materials—that is now rare. It would bring research to bear on the problems of educational practice. And just as importantly, it would bring the problems of practice to the agenda of research.