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No Educator Left Behind: Research-Based Instructional Programs

No Educator Left Behind is a series providing answers from the U.S. Department of Education to questions about the federal No Child Left Behind Act and how it will affect educators. If you have a question about No Child Left Behind, send an e-mail to Ellen Delisio, and we will submit your question to the Department of Education.

Question:

What defines a "research-based" instructional program?

U.S. Department of Education:

The key characteristics of scientifically based research are common across all fields, including medicine, biology, and psychology, as well as education. Scientific research gathers information about significant questions; uses objective methods that involve reliable and valid observations and measurements; and meets rigorous standards of peer review. The conclusions of scientific research can be replicated and generalized.

The bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act helps the Department of Education direct federal funding to programs that are backed by scientifically based research. The goal of the new provisions in the law is to create the best educational opportunities for our nation's children. To ensure that all children have opportunities to succeed, the law highlights the importance of using research-based instructional practices that have achieved proven results in a variety of classrooms across the nation.

Scientifically based instructional methods equip teachers with tools that help them better reach children, avoid burnout, and improve their classrooms' culture of learning and achievement.

Instructional practices that are based on scientific evidence bring the best teaching approaches and programs to children who might fail without them. Such practices challenge children and interest them in learning, setting them on the path to success in school and in life.

Characteristics of Scientifically Based Research:

  • Significant Questions. Scientifically based research begins with a significant question. In education, a significant question is one that addresses a core issue related to teaching and learning. An example of a significant research question in education is, "What are the most successful approaches for teaching young children to read?"

  • Reliability and Validity. Scientifically based research uses established and objective ways of observing and measuring. In other words, the observational methods and measurements used in scientifically based research have reliability -- they consistently produce the same results -- and validity -- they actually measure what they claim to measure.

    If a researcher is trying to determine, for example, which type of instruction best helps children learn the meanings of new words, the researcher must decide how to measure the children's word learning. Should the children just be asked whether they know a word? Should they be able to recognize the correct definition among several choices? Or should they be able to use the new word correctly in their writing or speaking? The way the researcher chooses to measure word learning must be reliable, valid, and able to pass the scrutiny of other scientists studying word learning.

  • Reliable Data Interpretation. Scientifically based research requires that researchers use established and objective ways of making sense of the information they gather from their observations and measurements. Conclusions should follow logically from the data and should not be affected by opinions or biases. Scientists also are expected to try to find evidence that may contradict their conclusions. An important feature of scientific research is that it obligates researchers to evaluate carefully other possible explanations for any conclusions they reach.

  • Peer Review. High quality research depends on members of a scientific community working together to interpret and evaluate conclusions. An important role for members of the scientific community is to serve as peer reviewers. Peer reviewers are those in the same field who have the expertise necessary to evaluate the quality of the research. Peer reviewers examine the reported research prior to its publication in a professional journal or its presentation at a meeting of professionals.

    Peer reviewers may also help the researcher generate alternate explanations for the study's conclusions, or suggest additional evidence that the researcher should consider. To allow peer reviewers to conduct a rigorous review of the research, researchers must make sure that their reports provide all the information necessary to evaluate the findings of the research. If peer reviewers find serious flaws in the research methods or conclusions, they may reject the report. Indeed, journals that have good reputations for the quality of their research require peer review and acceptance before publishing new research. Those journals are called "peer-review journals."

    Before publishing research results, peer-review journals ensure that expert reviewers agree that the research was conducted correctly and that the conclusions follow logically from the data gathered.

  • Replication. Scientifically based research is replicable. Reports of scientific research include enough specific information about the methods used that other researchers can replicate, or repeat, the research to verify and extend the conclusions. Scientists can also extend scientifically based research to determine whether the results can be applied to individuals other than those in the study, or whether they hold true under different conditions (i.e. in smaller or larger instructional groups). The results from a single research study are rarely decisive. Rather, evidence from each study builds on prior evidence, and scientifically based knowledge emerges from a body of accumulated evidence.

Read previous questions and answers in our No Educator Left Behind archive.

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