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Education reform: a lot of talk, not much science

By John Published: June 30, 2011

I've added Sarah D. Sparks' blog Inside School Research at Education Week to my Google reader.  She has this post today about a meeting of the National Board of Education Sciences, the advisory board for the Education Department's research agency.

This quote speaks volumes about the quality of education research.

"We have 21st-century expectations of science and the answers it can provide, but education science is kind of behind," said Lynn Okagaki, commissioner for education research at IES, noting that many large-scale data sets and studies have only begun to be used in the last decade. "That's the reality. Like it or not, science takes time; we're getting there."

 In 2007, Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, wrote about the poor quality of education research in one of three policy reports based on a four-year study of America's education schools.
The right, the left and single-interest groups are locked in a white-hot, self-righteous battle over the directions our schools need to take. There has been little rigorous research to produce empirical evidence in support of any position.

What do we get instead?  Levine quotes a committee convened by the National Research Council to assess the quality of education research: 
[E]ducational research is perceived to be of low quality. …Educational researchers themselves are often their own harshest critics (e.g. Kaestle, 1993). They are often joined by a chorus of social scientists, engineers and business leaders who lament weak or absent theory, accumulations of anecdote masquerading as evidence, studies with little obvious policy relevance, seemingly endless disputes over the desired outcomes of schooling, low levels of replicability, large error margins, opaqueness of data and sources, unwillingness or inability to agree on a common set of metrics and the inevitable intrusion of ideology at the ground level.

However, universities aren't the only producers of research. Nonprofits, corporations, foundations, professional associations and government agencies also churn out papers and studies.

Of this group the worst offenders have been the growing number of ideological think tanks, overwhelmingly conservative. For the most part, they have not engaged in disinterested research, but rather have collected data to support the policy positions they advocate. Their publications are among the most visible in education because these organizations have been remarkably successful in disseminating, publicizing and getting them into the hands of policymakers.

Update: I meant to include this Washington Post column from Daniel Willingham in my original post. He argues that good educational research is being done, but there is no authority that can separate the wheat from the "learning styles."

If I'm a legislator--or teacher--interested in a question such as, "What's the latest research on how kids learn to read and how they respond to different ways of teaching reading?" where do I turn?

The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) ought to be logical place, but it has not shown a lot of interest in taking on the job.

I think a large part of the reason for this is that it is an enormous organization that includes scholars from very different disciplines: psychology, economics, political science, critical theory, history, feminist studies, etc. These different fields not only have different criteria by which evidence is evaluated, they have different definitions of what it means to "know" something. Small wonder, then, that AERA is seldom ready to make a flat statement on a research issue.

This reluctance leaves a vacuum into which opportunists are happy to leap.

People ask me: "If it's really true that there is no evidence supporting learning styles, how can there be professional development activities on them, and books published about them, and all the rest?" Because the people who do research on this sort of thing don't speak with one voice to say: "We've looked into this and there doesn't seem to be much to it.''




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