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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Government agencies may want to do comprehensive clinical trials in education BEFORE it gives advice and creates standards

In medicine, as epitomized by cancer research, there are 5-year, 10-year, even 20-year studies to look at patterns and effectiveness of various approaches. But when it comes to education, there are simply a lot of people arguing very hard for specific curricula, approaches, and standards based on, well, nothing. Typically, the loudest and most persistent voices shape government policy.

We desperately need national clinical studies in education. Some I would like to see are, what is a correlation between:
  • Learning pre-calculus as a student and comfortably using math at age 30?
  • Studying literature as a student and applying ethics and exploring what makes for a good life at age 35?
  • Class ranking in high school and strengths in problem solving at age 40?
  • Studying biology and life expectancy?
  • Grades and happiness in life?
  • Material studied and divorce rate? Or number of career options at age 30? Or drug and alcohol dependency?
And this is just the beginning. One question is, why don't these studies exist? Why aren't people demanding that for the billions that are spent, there is not 1% to figure out if all of this money is doing some good?

Of what are we so afraid? And why does it take unschoolers to bear the brunt of questioning dogma?

Obviously any study wouldn't get it right the first time. But don't we owe it to our children and their children to develop the methodology and processes to be then calibrated?

There is a final irony. When it comes to science, Federal education committees are more interested in advocating every student "learn" it than the committees themselves actually using and applying it.  Said another way, let's only act as if we have answers, and optimize a process\ around them, when we actually do.  And where we don't have answers, let's embrace a diversity of solutions and approaches.

See also: In education conversations, the mutually assured destruction is "Prove it!"

** A final note.  Most education research tries to frame the learning process using the same deterministic models as physics/industrial manufacturing.  The goal is to find the steps/learning theory that "works", and then apply those steps with greater and greater rigor.  Perhaps a new approach to research is needed.


  1. I appreciate your fantasy, Clark. Offhand I can think of two answers to your question of why this kind of research doesn't exist:

    1) Over 20+ years, a friend of mine did longitudinal research like what you're suggesting. As he said, "it takes forever!" And "forever" is beyond what anybody will pay for educational research. We want answers now!

    2) Unlike in medicine, it's very difficult to run clinical trials in education. How do you get randomized samples when parents want what they think is best for their children? To use your examples, how do you control for variation in the teaching of precalculus or the politics involved in getting grades? To compensate for the variation, if even possible, you need huge samples--also beyond the scope of short-sighted funding.

    (I'm not really so pessimistic as this sounds.)

    (I can't seem to select my TypePad blog as a profile, so I'll use my real name here!)

    larry copes

  2. I totally agree! The theme of this blog is common sense things that should be done in education that instead come off as fantasy given the current structure. My point is the lack of research should, but does not, temper the intensity of the arguments made for specific curricula and evaluation schemes. Schools are stuck in a ritualistic cycle, doing things because they have been done, with no schema for getting out of their rut.

  3. Even if lack of funding make the more ambitious assessment projects impractical, it would be nice if a truly research-based mindset took root among educators.

  4. Good point, Peter. I just want long term, and connected to after school success.