Thursday, June 21, 2007

Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won’t

America became a world power on the strength of its natural resources, scientific and technological advances, democracy and capitalism. The cornerstone of this growth was a system of schooling which provided a workforce that was adequately prepared to support the changes of the industrial age.

America still leads the world in the information age, but its continued dominance is not assured. That will depend on America's commitment to raise the educational standards sufficient for the next generation.

Research has something to offer in this effort. How much remains in question.

Since the very beginnings of educational scholarship, late in the 19th century, the social sciences (including education) have attempted to mirror the natural sciences. Researchers have grouped, surveyed, correlated, regressed and stretched the limits of logic in an effort to construct a science of education. It has been partially successful.

Unlike the natural sciences, the problem for social scientists is that our variables don't hold still. They are human. They are in the mind. They don't behave consistently. They are powerfully affected by uncontrolled outside factors that are often misunderstood.

And much of the research is too far removed from the classroom level - the only place where it really matters.

But yet, we continue to speak of education research as though it is all based on rigorous evidence and will produce something euphemistically called "best practice" - which is rarely the case. Too often, uttering the term "best practice" is a signal from superintendents to teachers to quit thinking - and do what they are told.

If education was a natural would be like meteorology. Billions of data points constantly in flux, and highly localized. What you get - whether it's sunshine or tornadoes - depends largely on where you are.

Then, there's the issue of the misuse of science.

Let's say a foundation wants to promote a particular political point of view. They form a think tank. They hire researchers to help construct evidence in support of a conclusion they have already drawn. The researchers conduct a study. Maybe the methodology is sound, but too often it is not. In either case, when the study is done it is released to the public, through the media, without any independent review.

Rigorous evidence and pseudoscience make it into the same news cycle without differentiation - and that is where it is most likely to be encountered by principals and other school leaders who make decisions for their local schools.

This is not an ideal situation.

In yesterday's Education Week, Ronald A. Wolk, asks whether America can "deal with education’s systemic challenge. Could we identify the highest-priority questions, those whose answers would lead to better schools and improved learning, and get the education and policy community to agree? Could a carefully constructed program of strategic research priorities lead to an integrated assault on education’s systemic problems? Could government and foundations be persuaded to provide long-term funding for such an effort?
If those questions were ever to be answered affirmatively, maybe education research could improve education. Maybe, if there were more of a consensus in the research community, there would be more positive outcomes, both in legislatures and in schools.

This from Education Week.

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