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What If Only What Can Be Counted Will Count? A Critical Examination of Making Educational Practice “Scientific”

by Jennifer C. Ng, Donald D. Stull & Rebecca S. Martinez - 2019

Background/Context: In recent decades, federal policymakers have pushed for education to be a more “scientific” endeavor. While scholars have considered the implications of this orientation for educational researchers, less attention has been given to its impact on educational practitioners.

Purpose/Focus of the Study: By focusing on the local interpretation and implementation of a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) model in one Midwestern school district, this study documents the translation of a comprehensive reform initiative meant to make educational practice more data-driven and scientific. With particular attention to interactions between district and building administrators, classroom teachers, and a group of outside consultants, we also consider the consequential effects of principal–agent relations in determining how learners (should) learn and teachers (should) teach.

Research Design: Using ethnographic methods over a period of five months, this study emerged from a larger project examining the work of educators in a rural district that includes 18 schools and serves approximately 7,600 students from racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds. With MTSS as the unifying agenda across multiple interactions that involved a cross-section of the district’s staff, administrative leaders, and outside consultants, we analyzed fieldnotes generated from participant observation during MTSS-specific meetings and semi-structured, individual interviews conducted with key implementation principals and agents. Other fieldnotes and interviews provided confirmation of our primary analysis, as well as supplementary perspectives from building and classroom contexts.

Findings: Through our analysis, we found that implementation leaders presumed the infallibility of the MTSS model; relied exclusively on certain forms of quantitative data; standardized the individual needs of learners, processes of learning, and roles of teachers; and insisted on fidelity of intervention as an end in itself.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Implementation leaders invoking research to inform practice can sometimes silence practitioners rather than foster their substantive involvement and understanding. This marginalizes certain types of knowledge that can contribute to understanding students’ needs, and it forces practitioners to be data-deferent rather than data-driven. The concept of implementation fidelity also needs to be reconsidered—not as an absolute good but with the necessary flexibility afforded to practitioners who are (1) educated in the essential components of available interventions, (2) able to become fluent through practice, and (3) allowed to exercise their professional expertise and judgment as appropriate.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 1, 2019, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22476, Date Accessed: 6/20/2021 5:21:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Ng
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER NG is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on understanding the work of educators in varied social contexts, especially with race, class, and other equity concerns as primary features.
  • Donald Stull
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    DON STULL is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, where he taught from 1975 to 2015. His research and writing focus on the meat and poultry industry in North America, rural industrialization and rapid growth communities, and industrial agriculture’s impact on farmers, processing workers, and rural communities.
  • Rebecca Martinez
    Indiana University in Bloomington
    E-mail Author
    REBECCA MARTINEZ is an Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington. She is a former classroom teacher and school psychologist. The ecological framework guides all of her research, and implementation science—translating best practices for use by real schools, with real teachers, and real children and families—is what inspires her most.
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