I closed my last post with a quote about research. It’s a topic that deserves more attention, since “research-based” has become one of the most ubiquitous catch phrases in the reform movement. It’s interesting to me that the same camp that has all but pushed science instruction out of the K-5 curriculum with its emphasis on testing math and language arts has become so obsessed with the scientific method as the guiding light for reform.

My undergraduate degree is in biology, and science has always been one my favorite academic disciplines. During my studies I developed a healthy respect for the scientific approach to problem solving, but I also developed an understanding of the limitations of such research. My professors made a point of hammering home lessons on how to interpret the conclusions of scientific studies, and to be skeptical of any results that have not been replicated repeatedly and independently.

One of the classic lessons I learned is the mantra, “Correlation does not equal causation.” The idea is that just because there is some kind of association between two things doesn’t mean that one is the cause of the other. For example, a study on car ownership and longevity might show that there is a “link” between owning more expensive cars and living longer. That doesn’t necessarily mean that owning a Ferrari makes you healthier, or that owning a clunker will put you in an early grave. In fact, a more reasonable explanation would be that people who can afford Ferraris can also afford the best healthcare, and/or have more leisure time to exercise, and/or have the education to make wise choices when it comes to diet and lifestyle. Unless the researchers find evidence of the actual mechanism by which one thing affects another, a study can only show that there is some unexplained connection, and even that needs to be demonstrated repeatedly to be considered reliable.

Acknowledging the complexity of the system being studied should be a key part of interpreting and weighing the findings of any research study. Teaching and learning (and pretty much any social endeavors) are incredibly complex processes, influenced by an incalculably huge number of variables. A study might be able to show that a particular curriculum or instructional strategy correlated with an increase in test scores in a particular school or district, but what does that really prove? Are there other explanations for this result other than the quality of the curriculum? Maybe scores increased because of the quality of the teacher training that accompanied the curriculum. Maybe administrators put more pressure on teachers in the area of math because of the huge investment in the new curricular materials. Maybe scores increased because teachers knew that the district was doing the study and they did more test preparation with their kids. Maybe they increased because the curriculum more closely resembled the format of the test. Then again, maybe it was something totally unrelated, such as demographic shifts in the district or a more nutritious lunch program that started in the same year.

Ok, so even if these types of research studies aren’t as conclusive as we might like, isn’t it better to make decisions based on shaky research than on no research at all? I say no, especially if it leads to an overconfident view that dismisses the complexity of the task at hand. Decision-making at the classroom level requires a balanced approach that takes multiple factors into account, including the prior knowledge of the students, their cultural and socio-economic background, the instructional modes with which they are familiar (and have had success), and the strengths and style of the teacher. In my experience in private schools (as well as my current public school), my fellow teachers and administrators almost always use this kind of balanced approach to decision making. Though the teachers don’t always agree with every final decision, they at least understand the process and have opportunities to make their case and have their opinion considered. In short, they are treated as professionals.

In contrast, in much of the public school system it has become commonplace for administrators and politicians to use research studies as a tool to strong-arm teachers into casting aside curriculum and instructional strategies that they have built up over their whole careers. Insistence on “research-based” methods has become one of the hammers with which the so-called reformers have squashed the independence and creativity of our teachers. You may have used a lesson successfully for the last ten years, but if you can’t produce a double blind study showing how it raises test scores, it’s out the window. This is one of the reasons public school teachers are feeling increasingly undervalued and demoralized. The situation is even worse when they know that the new research-based approach is a poor fit for their students, but their professional opinion carries no weight.

The idea of trying to apply science (or pseudoscience) to societal issues is not a new one, but there are plenty of examples in history that should make us skeptical about the wisdom of such an effort. Obviously I wouldn’t equate the current fad for research-based methods in education with movements like social Darwinism or eugenics, but I do see a couple interesting similarities. In particular, many of the strongest proponents don’t really seem to understand the science that is supposed to underlie their positions. Even worse, these questionable interpretations are being used by some in positions of power to disenfranchise another group. You may be able to argue philosophy with your principal, but how can you argue with SCIENCE?

I’m not suggesting that there’s no value in educators and curriculum developers keeping abreast of the findings of brain researchers, or that there’s no room for well-designed studies in educational research. My point is that the results of such research should be viewed with an understanding of its limits, and in the context of the complexity of the learning process. Those of us who navigate the murky waters of education simply don’t have the option of relying on science to point the way. We must develop our educational philosophy, build our skills, strengthen our teaching personas and even hone our instincts. Yes, teaching is more of a craft than a science, and you should be wary of anyone who tries to tell you different. They’re either trying to force their perspective on you, naively grasping for an easy solution to a complex problem, or they’re selling you something.


About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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5 Responses to Research-Based

  1. Jim Cranston says:

    I think that economic disparities in the communities being served by some of the poorer performing schools are a large part of the problem. I find it interesting
    that the public schools that serve upper socio-economic demographics are heavily
    funded by PTA communities. This is neither fair nor unfair, it merely is. What I find alarming is, that as a country, we seem to be losing faith in our public school system.
    How can we make it better for everyone? When people (with the economic wherewithal) choose the private option over the public one, what affect does this have on those without resources, substandard performance? -Jim
    choose the private option

    • maestromitch says:

      Hey Jim,
      You raise a lot of good questions. Sure, the economic and related educational disparities between communities is certainly a big part of the problem, but it has been compounded by a lot of very wrongheaded moves by the educational leadership of the country, as far as such a leadership exists. Not only is the country losing faith in public schools, but the teachers themselves are losing faith as they become less and less connected with the decision making process. The flight of many of the strongest students to private schools certainly compounds the problem, by the PTA mechanism you mentioned as well as by the general lowering of the level of discourse in the classroom. Unfortunately parents are having to decide whether they will further the best interest of their community or of their child. In many places these priorities are really at direct odds with one another, especially when parents don’t only have to consider the quality of the education their children will receive, but also their physical and emotional safety. If you ask me, it’s seriously time to go back to the drawing board.

  2. Sean says:

    Great show on Talk of the Nation today about how teachers are feeling about being blamed for failing schools/students:

    Op-Ed: Rage Simmering Among American Teachers

    Education historian Diane Ravitch says the teachers on the front lines of labor rallies in Wisconsin reflect growing anger among educators nationwide. Teachers are sick and tired, she says, of being blamed for the ills of America’s public schools.

  3. Candace McIsaac says:

    Mitch, you raise some excellent points. What are some solutions? Check out the work of Doug Fisher / Nancy Frey. They have done some wonderful work alongside the San Diego School District. They are more geared towards high school but the district is developing some interesting ways of assessing student knowledge. I love their homework policies, as I feel teachers give way to much. They have the students pass “competencies” instead of the old grading system. The whole district has moved this way. They are college professors in education but are also teaching 9th grade English in San Diego. They are practicing what they are preaching which I think is great.

  4. Jennifer Goodheart says:

    thank you for writing this. i feel like you are speaking about my district. lots and lots of research based programs, with expensive consultants. our district spent $3k/student on consultants in ’08-’09. these research based programs are often in direct conflict with one another and our state mandated curricula. it doesn’t seem like a whole lot of thought is going into the process.

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