The Impact of ESEA's Scientifically Based Research Requirement on Schools' Technology Solutions


State departments of education and school districts nationwide struggle to interpret and understand the new No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This has led some districts to take a "wait and see" approach to planning how they will use the appropriated funds, further delaying student achievement. Many educators do not realize the bill simplifies much of their decision making, and points to very positive changes for education and student achievement.

The NCLB legislation was enacted "to ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging [state academic standards and assessments]." No one is going to argue with that goal. But some educators are concerned about the emphasis on scientifically based research. What, exactly, d'es that mean for educators and for those who provide education programs to the nation's schools? This requirement, that districts implement products and programs founded on scientifically based research, is one of the bill's greatest strengths. When coupled with effective professional development, these educational solutions represent an overwhelmingly positive move toward improving student achievement nationwide.

The scientifically based research requirement puts real teeth into the accountability component for educators, while also affecting the companies behind the educational solutions. As written in the NCLB legislation, the term scientifically based research means "research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs." The net message: Educators must select companies that use research to create solutions and then assess those solutions' effects on student achievement.

The research goal ensures school districts will consistently evaluate companies and products based on scientific information rather than on rhetoric and major advertising campaigns. It further ensures that the companies themselves do not focus on the sizzle without the substance.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the mandate for scientifically based research products is that many companies are scrambling to meet a goal that cannot be met by simply creating a document or tweaking a software program. Every company that creates educational solutions for school districts and children should be meeting this standard every day. Selecting the right technology partner has never been more important to America's schools. School districts can do plenty to identify and weed out the nonperforming companies. Here are the elements to look for in a scientifically based research technology solution:

1. Research foundation for products. It seems like common sense would dictate that companies consult existing data on what works for student achievement as they develop their technology solutions. However, when school districts begin asking for the research, pedagogy and design elements of many companies' products, they are met with blank stares. Companies often underestimate the level of knowledge and expertise required to develop and evaluate high-quality instructional materials, both online and off, for an increasingly sophisticated education audience. For each of its solutions, each company should be able to provide written documentation of research and its application, including:

  • The effectiveness of instructional technology for student achievement in the classroom.
  • The compilation of knowledge on teaching and learning (learning styles, direct vs. indirect instruction, etc.), and its application to the company's products.
  • An understanding of the latest research in curriculum areas, such as math and reading, and a demonstrated application to products.
  • Evaluation studies, including evidence of the solution's effect on student achievement in school settings, recently as well as several years back.
  • What assessments work and how they link to curriculum and classroom instruction.
  • An understanding of the research on professional development approaches and demonstrated integration into the company's solution.
  • To be effective, companies that create educational products must have expertise in the curriculum pedagogy. Companies should use internal and external curriculum and assessment experts for planning and product development. The product development staff should be in continual communication with educators and curriculum consultants around the country to stay abreast of changes in instruction. They should also ensure all products are tested in the field.

    2. Product development methodology, on-site product testing and data evaluation. Companies with whom educators do business should be able to document advanced processes for in-house product development and out of house reviews. A recursive internal review cycle for product development includes ongoing review by internal product marketing experts and external curriculum consultants, and in-depth review by members of the product development team. Having the right processes in place requires skilled and knowledgeable employees in product research and development. While this skill and knowledge is essential to building strong instructional technology solutions, the in-depth review process is costly. Many companies cut corners by simply ignoring important quality assurance steps.

    In creating assessments like the new CompassLearning Explorer, which is aligned with state and the National Assessment of Educational Progress standards, CompassLearning implemented a thorough item development, evaluation and field-testing process that required attention and analysis from in-house developers, external assessment consultants and on-site teachers. The product was then tested with students in school district settings. It is important that all products be evaluated for:

  • Bias review
  • Sensitivity review
  • Content validity
  • Instructional validity
  • Concurrent validity
  • The field studies were followed by a thorough item analysis, a re-editing of the assessment, and the forming of partnerships with districts for three-year longitudinal studies that focused on student achievement gains. The data analysis becomes part of the ongoing product cycle: research, develop, test, collect and analyze data, and edit. For the sake of accountability and student achievement, educators should ask about and understand the development and review processes of any company with which it plans to do business.

    3. Company credibility. The third major criteria educators should consider when evaluating educational technology companies are their history and lasting power. In the early dot-com years, hundreds of companies catering to education opened their doors. Although some were excellent, many had their eyes on the big dollars the market provides and knew little about educational technology. The last couple of years have seen numerous startups close up shop, but many still remain.

    School districts and states need to look carefully at the qualifications, personnel and profitability of any company promising a solution to student achievement. There is little room for error in the execution of the NCLB Act, and districts, now more than ever, need to make decisions to align with solid companies. Relation-ships with technology partners generally last five to 10 years, so partnering with the right company definitely matters. Districts should focus on:

  • Longevity. A company with a long history means years of experience for getting it right.
  • Education expertise. It takes educators, both internally and externally, to deliver a solid solution that helps solve real-world education problems.
  • Development expertise. Selecting the right technologies, building products for flexibility and future upgrades, and assuring proven instructional design that works with children are critical pieces here.
  • Business expertise. Companies must have executive business expertise and the ability to use money wisely. Profitability still matters, because a company cannot provide solutions if it is no longer in business.
  • Sales staff. Schools need a person with whom they can meet to discuss district needs, issues that arise and product updates. This person should be a knowledgeable, readily available solutions provider.
  • Professional development staff. Virtual training is a great supplement to, but should not be a replacement for, face to face professional development.
  • Technical support staff. On-site and telephone support are crucial. Be wary if a company d'es not have enough staff to attend to concerns face to face.
  • Contact Information
    CompassLearning Inc.
    San Diego, CA
    (800) 422-4339

    This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.