Why does the mere mention of the word "research" bring terror to the minds of many teachers and administrators? Maybe it conjures up memories of graduate-school lectures on inferential statistics, regression analysis and standard deviation. Or perhaps there's an uneasiness that they'll end up communicating in the "edu-speak" that critics are fond of lampooning.
Most likely, these educators haven't yet tried action research, a new approach that gives education leaders a powerful tool to craft meaningful reform--without the pain of traditional research methods.
Simply stated, action research is a systematic process for studying educational problems in a way that leads to substantive improvements. Any number of issues facing school districts today can benefit from this approach, from safety, discipline or morale to student achievement, community relations or staff development.Initial diagnosis: The process begins with an assessment of test scores showing that students must improve their reading proficiency. The educator conducting the research then determines the best approach to tackle this problem, such as developing a quality reading team composed of teachers, staff, community members and the action researcher.
What is characteristic of action research, regardless of the target problem, is a general model that includes initial diagnosis, data collection, analysis/feedback, action planning, implementation and follow up. Here's how one might apply this process to a concern such as inadequate student reading achievement.
Data collection: In this stage, the reading team conducts several assessment activities. For example, the group might develop a breakdown of students with specific reading deficiencies based on district, state or national scores. The team also might initiate a benchmarking process to identify reading programs used successfully at other schools.
Analysis and feedback: Next, the team's findings are presented to administrators and faculty. Interaction leading to clarification (from the team) and suggestions (from other stakeholders) are encouraged. This opportunity for collaboration is critical to the success of the action research process as it helps to develop lines of communication, trust and mutual support among the school staff and community.
Action planning: Stage four is the decision-making segment. A proposal, including a plan of action, expectations and identification of the resources needed, should be prepared by the reading team and submitted to the appropriate administrator.
Implementation: At this point the action begins in earnest as the adopted plan is put in place. Whether or not the reading team is responsible for implementation, the team should help monitor the progress, keep the school and community informed and support implementation efforts.
Follow up: Finally, the quality reading team provides assessment of the actions taken, by such means as follow-up surveys, and/or analysis of reading test scores. An overall performance assessment then is made.
Making It Happen
While researchers, for the most part, agree on the general framework for the action research model, no two approaches are alike. Every organization is a living organism, and the educator must find the most appropriate approach for a given situation.
But that challenge should be welcome news to the pro-active educators we need in our schools today.Daniel Tomal is assistant professor of educational leadership and foundations at Concordia University, 7400 Augusta St., River Forest, IL 60305-1499. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org