Educational Research Lacks Proper Standard
by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
www.SchoolMatch.com, June 24, 2003
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A few years ago, late-night TV host Jay Leno found fodder for
his opening monologue in a national study purporting to be
educational research. A major finding was that students who took
algebra in high school did better in college than those who did
not. Leno pointed out the obvious: Students in the college
preparatory track are required to take algebra, and the research
money was spent proving that those who prepare for college do
better in college than those who did not.
Such wheel-spinning research wastes taxpayer money and is not
uncommon. And there is nothing funny about that.
One example is research that purports to show improvements in
student achievement as a result of new, presumably better
curricular programs. More often than not, we find that when
great improvements in test scores emerge, the teaching staff has
been "reconstituted." In a nutshell, the principal has removed
weak teachers or those who are not compatible with curricular
changes. Because there is a great body of research indicating
teachers are the key elements in the education process, when the
majority of the teachers have changed, it is very difficult to
attribute gains in student performance to any curriculum. The
changes might simply be due to increasing the quality of the
teaching. Better teachers may mean better student outcomes
regardless of the curriculum. At any rate, attribution of
results is suspect because the causes cannot be determined.
In similar studies, a little deeper probing reveals the student
body changed through high dropout rates or transfers, thereby
leaving higher-performing students to be tested. In other
investigations, computers in homes have been linked with high
scores, but most people know that students from high
socioeconomic homes tend to score better than those from low
socioeconomic homes. And, obviously, students in families in the
higher income brackets are the ones better able to afford home
Too much federal money has been expended on correlation studies
that, in many cases, end up documenting common sense, as these
examples and Jay Leno suggest. Thoughtful researchers have
pointed out flaws in similar studies for years. Problems ranging
from sampling bias, experimenter bias, statistical flaws and
errors in randomization have created a paucity of useful
benchmarks in the body of educational research.
A breath of fresh air was introduced recently by a prominent
education official who can actually deal with bias, errors and
faulty reasoning in federally funded educational research.
Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the new director of the Institute
of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, has
the courage to point out the flaws of past practice in his vast
agency. His responsibilities include gathering and reporting
information on our progress in education, funding research on
practices that improve academic achievement and opportunities
and evaluating the effectiveness of education programs.
Whitehurst is borrowing from medicine the concept of randomized
trials to investigate claims about the effects of an educational
intervention on outcomes. Itís the same approach to research
that has been designed to prove that hormone replacement
therapy, welfare programs and the DARE drug-abuse-prevention
program may actually produce negative consequences.
This approach is an outgrowth of what many of us learned in high
school in the introduction to experimental science; control
groups and experimental groups are examined to see if
interventions make a difference. These simple measures reduce
the possibility that researchersí biases will contaminate
findings. Much educational research does not go far enough to
implement these kinds of controls.
Educational research must not continue to be a resource for
comedians. Whitehurst has it right. It is high time we protect
our precious dollars and provide dynamic assistance to teaching
and learning through the use of randomized trials.
William L. Bainbridge is Distinguished Research Professor at
the University of Dayton and President and Chief Executive
Officer of SchoolMatch
, a Columbus - based educational auditing, research and data
firm. You can email him
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