Dennis W. Cheek, Ph.D.
Vice President, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's focus on powerful changes in mathematics, science, and technology teaching and learning in the Kansas City metropolitan area is a distinctive effort in the national education reform landscape. Our ten-year commitment to this educational agenda provides hope that something of lasting significance can be achieved, positioning Kansas City to compete globally for talent and to attract and retain high-skill, high-wage companies.
Education is an arena of human life where virtually everyone believes they understand the problems and also know the solutions. Perhaps it is because we are all products of educational systems and reflect back on things we liked, those we didn’t, and changes that we believe would have mattered for us. We can also look beyond our own personal opinions to those of educational experts.
Yet contemporary research in education is quite similar in nature to that seen with medical research in the 1950s and early 1960s. At that time therapeutic, pharmaceutical, and surgical interventions were still largely based on the opinions of qualified experts. The revolution that created modern medicine was a product of two major factors: a relentless focus on the conduct, analysis, and synthesis of large-scale clinical trials and incredible advances in technologies, especially those related to fabrication and miniaturization. As clinical trials dramatically increased in number and scope, it became apparent that expert opinion was wrong much of the time, often with lethal consequences for large numbers of patients.
We have not attained this level of understanding in education. Advocates of various educational programs and policies often promote their particular approaches based largely on compelling anecdotes, the opinions of “experts,” and highly limited investigations published in peer-reviewed literature or self-published “research” that is generally peer-reviewed by persons already supportive of their basic approach or philosophy. Not surprisingly, the evidence adduced in these cases is almost always of a singularly positive nature in favor of the policy or program that the advocates seek to have adopted on a wide scale—frequently to the tune of millions of dollars.
This research approach has resulted in an annual exercise across America where massive new “experiments” in educational improvement are introduced. These lack all the features of good experiments and tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the interventions. Often changes in local, state, and national administrations generally lead to wholesale discarding of the prior set of interventions and the introduction of yet another set of unproven interventions whose effectiveness is completely unknown, at worst, and minimally defensible, at best.
As Mr. Kauffman, our founder, realized so well, the proof of any approach must be demonstrated rather than merely advocated, whether one is manufacturing and selling pharmaceuticals or introducing innovations in education. We must create the conditions for rigorous analysis of the effects of interventions in education.
The Kauffman Foundation has an opportunity to lead the nation in creating a test bed for the thorough evaluation of educational interventions in mathematics, science, and technology. In our ten-year agenda, we will draw upon the diverse settings (rural, suburban, and urban) and demographics of thirty-two public school districts, two Catholic educational systems, and assorted private and charter schools in the two adjacent states that comprise Greater Kansas City.
In this metropolitan area, we have the opportunity to work with a total population of more than 300,000 students and more than 18,000 teachers. We also have a singular responsibility to cultivate a widely shared, regional culture of experimentation and an attitude of intense humility toward what we currently know about the effectiveness of various techniques, programs, and policies in mathematics, science, and technology education.
We cannot afford to wait, however, until far more is known before we act. Jeff Bewkes, chief operating officer of Time Warner, remarked in the February 6, 2006 edition of Fortune, “You can actually provoke information by doing things that you can’t figure out if you just sit there thinking.”
The Kauffman Foundation already has funded and/or sponsored a number of projects and programs—and more are on their heels. Programs already in the works include:
Large grants to thirteen Kansas City area school districts—district-wide grants to improve mathematics, science, and technology programs for all students;
- Large grants to thirteen Kansas City area school districts—district-wide grants to improve mathematics, science, and technology programs for all students;
- FIRST Robotics—a high school robotics building and competition program, and the LEGO League building program in middle schools;
- Uplink: A Math, Science, and Technology Hub—a central hub for teacher externships, student internships, mentoring, and job shadowing in coordination with the local business community;
- The JASON Project—a middle school math, science, and technology program created by Titanic discoverer, Dr. Robert Ballard, that works through hands-on, real world scientific discovery;
- Summer Enrichment Programs—student programs offered in mathematics, science, and technology, particularly for disadvantaged students; and summer professional development courses for math and science teachers;
- Project Lead the Way—a pre-engineering program for high schools; and
- Freedom Schools—a summer enrichment program operated by urban churches to help disadvantaged students improve academic achievement.
A cornerstone of our approach is to advocate and help advance more experimentation in the school districts of the Kansas City metropolitan area, particularly regarding mathematics, science, and technology programs and instructional approaches. These kinds of rigorous evaluations can best succeed if we enlist the aid of research faculty at institutions across the metro Kansas City area. Work is under way to create a bistate educational research consortium modeled after the well-known and long-running one based at the University of Chicago that studies Chicago Public Schools’ reform effort.
A second cornerstone of our approach is to seek to scale up programs that are already known, on the basis of work elsewhere, to either be manifestly effective or that apparently are effective given the limits of the study designs and replicability of these programs to date. Consistent with the views already expressed, we would want to further study these programs as they start to move to scale in our area to see more precisely what we can learn about their effects.
A third aspect of our approach is to use our funds to leverage changes in system behavior when it appears that such changes are both warranted and potentially powerful in effect. Some examples include:
- Establishing a well-designed and well-operated materials resources center for the entire region that can provide schools with materials and services in a consistent, reliable, and cost-effective manner.
- Organizing a Learning and Innovation Network for mathematics, science, and technology education coordinated by school leaders and practitioners throughout the area that provides just-in-time training, job-alike learning groups, a wide array of courses and opportunities throughout the year, greater cost efficiencies, and better quality control.
Finally, we believe that evolving technologies and multimedia can be coordinated and used more effectively to create learning environments that are much more engaging and where learning can be accelerated. This can lead to a curriculum that is more centered on the individual student, capitalizes on appropriate learning in groups, and enables student access and continuous use of information from a wide variety of sources. One current need we have identified is for more engaging gaming simulations that accomplish educational purposes but do so in a way that is truly exciting and motivating.
We are excited about progress to date, but believe that the future holds even greater promise. We will know we have succeeded when funders want to come to Kansas City to test their educational innovations; when increased numbers of students elect mathematics, science, and technology courses in high school and college because they really have come to love these subjects; when existing area companies can find the mathematics, science, and technology talent they need to move their businesses forward; and when entrepreneurs identify Kansas City as an optimal place to launch the high-growth ventures reliant on mathematics, science, and technology.
This essay is an excerpt from the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2007
. To view a table of contents for the 2009 edition, or to order a printed copy of the publication, please visit our 2009 Thoughtbook page