First, a “disclaimer” – research is great, and I’m not going to go into the obvious reasons why. I’m also not going to go into the obvious reasons why, sometimes, it’s not helpful. However, when reading this article by Sarah Sparks, more broadly reporting on retention, it struck me that sometimes research doesn’t lead us in the right or wrong direction – it just befuddles things a bit and obscures decision-making.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the research in question in the Sparks article: It was postulated that, because kids’ brains don’t make some sort of dramatic shift in processing information related to reading when entering 4th grade, we should continue to value beginning reading instruction for kids who need it.

This all sounds fine, and I’m on board with the conclusion – we should keep teaching beginning reading for kids who need it after 3rd grade. However, what if the research has said something else – for example, that kids’ brains had undergone some sort of shift in terms of processing reading-related information? We would then have drawn a different conclusion and used that information to support termination of beginning reading at 4th grade? I doubt the various authors and scholars reported on by Sparks in her article would have made the conclusion, but here’s my point – why even consider brain research at all? Why is it not enough to simply understand that beginning reading instruction for 4th & 5th graders works just because it does?

I doubt, again, that the folks referenced in the Sparks article meant what I’m about to say, but I think sometimes in education we just like to throw around research because it makes us look good. Somehow if we quote brain research we must be right, right? In fact, no – even more important that doing research is applying it meaningfully in actual settings.

I wanted to bring this point up with this article in particular because I actually agree with the conclusions. I didn’t want any readers to assume I was dismissing research because it was contrary to my view. I disagree with retention, and agree with the conclusions drawn by Sparks and the folks she references, including Tim Shanahan. But the brain research cited doesn’t really help us understand those points any more that what we already knew.