You are here

Research Center

After running a 13-year marathon, 52 percent of all U.S. public school students in 2004 faced a final hurdle as they neared the finish line: mandatory exit exams. The merits and drawbacks of these exams are being debated, and the buzz among onlookers and researchers goes something like this:

If you've read many research reports, you're familiar with the statement Further research on this topic is needed. You may have thought it a self-serving statement, coming from a researcher who no doubt dreams of additional funding. But when it comes to answering questions about what grade-span configurations are best, nearly everyone agrees: Further research is needed. Existing research does, however, offer some direction--and food for thought.

When students fall behind academically, is it more effective to hold them back a year so they can "catch up" or to promote them to the next grade so they can stay with their peers? According to most research, the answer is neither.

Writing has received less attention lately than the other two Rs, reading and 'rithmetic, but rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Beginning in 2005, the SAT college entrance exam will require students to write an essay, and the ACT will include an optional essay component. Writing--sometimes called the neglected R--seems poised for a comeback.

The pursuit of learning can be derailed in schools plagued by discipline problems. This is certainly not news to principals and teachers. Research confirms their intuitions about the connection between discipline and achievement. One recent study found that classroom behavior, rather than class size, was a primary factor associated with improved achievement. On the whole, research suggests that improvements in school discipline will create an environment more conducive to academic achievement.

Imagine being commissioned to make a 30-minute documentary about the yield on investments in U.S. public education. You sift through piles of data and find some gold nuggets. Each one reveals a different perspective. As you dig deeper, you find a story layered with complexity. Finally, you realize the truth: "The whole story can't be told in 30 minutes."

"Almost overwhelming." That's how one school principal describes his job. Still, 66 percent of the principals responding to a Public Agenda survey say they would choose the same career if starting out today. Says one, "I know we make a difference."

Auto mechanics perform alignments by lining up the direction of the wheels so the vehicle is pointed in a straight line. Curriculum alignment follows the same principle, with the "wheels" being curriculum, instruction, standards and assessment. Research indicates this kind of alignment can point a school or district toward improved student achievement.

It's a great irony--the shortage of scientifically based research on how to improve student achievement in science--but school districts aren't laughing. Under No Child Left Behind, students must be tested in science at least once in each grade span (3-5, 6-9 and 10-12) during the 2007-2008 school year. In preparation, states must have science standards in place by the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year. By the end of that school year, science classes must be taught by highly qualified teachers.

Wouldn't it be great if researchers discovered the holy grail of school improvement--a single approach that could be readily applied to improve all schools labeled low performing? Don't get your hopes up. After all, even Einstein failed in his efforts to discover an all-inclusive theory that explained everything. Because the definition of "low performing" varies from state to state, and the reasons for low performance vary from school to school, a "unified field theory" in education is unlikely.