Raising Kane, Again!


March 1, 2016


It is easy to agree with Harvard professor Tom Kane when he writes about making research more useful to state and local education policymakers and practitioners. However, as I noted almost a year ago, when I criticized his earlier piece on the subject, there are some things I think that Kane gets wrong as well.

First, let me acknowledge some observations that Kane makes in his latest Education Next piece that I agree with strongly. For example, he writes:

  • “The research community must find new ways to support state and local leaders as they seek solutions.”
  • “. . . [T]he central purpose of education research is to identify solutions and provide options for policymakers and practitioners.”
  • “IES must redirect its efforts away from funding the interests and priorities of the research community and toward building an evidence-based culture within districts and state agencies.” [Note: The Institute of Education Sciences or IES is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.]

What I hope elevates my critique above mere quibbling is that Kane too easily dismisses progress made in evidence use in education over the past decade. He overgeneralizes his view on the state of the field and offers policy prescriptions that, ironically, are either unsupported or contradicted by evidence.

In particular, I want to respond to one such observation, regarding the work of the IES-administered Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) system. Without citing evidence, Kane states: “For the most part, the labs are not building the capacity of districts and state agencies to gather evidence and measure impacts but are launching research projects that are disconnected from decision making.”

Readers should be aware that my response is influenced by the fact that Education Northwest is the contractor for REL Northwest, one of the 10 labs, and I currently serve as a chairperson of Knowledge Alliance, a membership organization that includes many other lab contractors. However, my response is also informed by the exciting and valuable work I see taking place in our lab and across the REL system every day.

A year ago, I wrote that readers should not take my word for the value of the labs but, instead, ask stakeholders about the research and data RELs produce, and the capacity building activities they provide. I cited testimonials from REL Northwest stakeholders regarding the value of our partnerships. Today, I encourage Kane to learn more about some of the recent activities in which our lab has been involved:

  • Two weeks ago, we hosted a group of local educators from the Portland area who are taking the next steps to reduce discipline disparities based on studies our lab conducted on the issue in several Oregon districts. Based on this work, several districts have already changed their practices in this area and others are seeking to improve.
  • Last week, staff from our lab presented on our small schools study to the Alaska State Legislature as part of ongoing support that we provide to lawmakers, superintendents, and other stakeholders on education and employment policy.
  • Just the other day, in collaboration with REL Southwest and REL West, we hosted the first of a series of webinars on early warning systems that can be used by schools and districts to reduce dropouts. The event, attended by more than 350 participants, featured both researchers and practitioners discussing what can and is being done to address this issue.

I believe that these examples, which could be added to by my colleagues from other labs, demonstrate how the research and data from the REL program are currently informing decision making and practice. This is what Kane advocates should be happening, and exactly what the labs are currently doing.

Can we be making more and quicker progress in education? Certainly. But, there’s great stuff going on right now. Innovations funded by IES such as the work of more than 75 REL research alliances, the “research collaborations” grant program, “knowledge utilization” centers, and the Partnering in Education Research fellowship program at Kane’s center at Harvard are just a few of examples of how evidence use is being supported in education. Support for research-practice partnerships offered by the Laura and John Arnold, Annie E. Casey, William T. Grant, Spencer, Wallace and other foundations, is another promising step to link evidence to improved educational policy and practice. These initiatives should be nurtured with better funding and, to test their promise, more evaluations. I hope that Kane will recognize these advances in evidence use in education when writing in the future.