Practical Research for Teachers is in Short Supply



Michael, MATCH Charter School
Janice B. Riddell, (203) 912-8675,, External Relations, Education Next

Practical Research for Teachers is in Short Supply
Need for Research on Effective Choices That Work in the Classroom

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The nation’s 3 million teachers generate about 2 billion hour-long classes per year.  Yet, there is scant empirical research on which actions, decided by individual teachers in their classrooms, are most effective in helping students to learn.

Michael Goldstein offers a “practitioner’s take” on what is blocking the research teachers need and what kinds of useful, empirical studies might help to fill this gap.  His article, “Studying Teacher Moves,” will appear in the Winter 2012 issue of Education Next and is now available at

“There is almost nothing examining the thousands of moves teachers must decide on and execute every school day,” writes Goldstein.  These include decisions such as:  whether to ask for raised hands, or cold-call;  whether to give a warning or a detention;  and whether to accept a student’s answer that is mostly right, or stay with a question until one member of the class reaches a 100% correct answer.  One problem with most education policy research is that the element of teacher time is missing.  “The return on investment for teacher time and the opportunity cost of spending it one way rather than another is rarely taken into account,” Goldstein observes, leading to teachers’ skepticism about the relevance of policy research.

Goldstein investigated ways to conduct useful, classroom-relevant research with an experiment of his own in the MATCH charter school he founded.  He asked Harvard economist Roland Fryer to help him conduct an empirical study of the question:  “Do teacher phone calls to parents work?”  A randomized study was designed involving 16 observers, under supervision of two graduate students, who carefully coded student behavior for several weeks in two sets of classes (classes that received parent calls from teachers, and those that did not).  The results of the study were that “on average, teacher-family communication increased homework completion rates by 6 percentage points and decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 32%.”

Drawing on this experiment as a model, Goldstein outlines a proposal for a “typology of trials,” that would mirror the kinds of empirical studies that are regularly done in the medical field.  He proposes that each of the nation’s 1,200-plus school of education and teacher prep programs conduct one randomized trial on a teacher move each year.  Phase 1 trials would be small, nongenerablizable empirical studies whose dependent variable is not year-end test scores, but “next-day or next-week outcomes:  measurable effects on student behavior, effort, or short-term learning.”  Phase 2 trials would test promising teacher practice from Phase 1 on a larger, more varied teacher pool to see if the next-day outcomes held up.  Phase 3 trials would be randomized trials in which teachers combine multiple moves that emerge from Phase 2, to identify “combinations of moves that are measured to see if they bolster year-end student learning gains.”

With a typology such as the one Goldstein outlines, teacher research would progress the way much medical research does, with “thousands of people each trying to answer small questions in a very rigorous way,” leading to research that might be useful to teachers on a daily basis.

About the Author
Michael Goldstein is the founder of MATCH Charter School and MATCH Teacher Residency, in Boston.

About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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