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Introduction: Implications of the Scientific Research in Education Report for Qualitative Inquiry

by Patti Lather & Pamela A. Moss - 2005

An introduction to the symposium.

What constitutes scientifically based research in education? How should it be defined? Who should definite it? Should it be privileged over other forms of educational research? Should it be defined at all? What role should qualitative or interpretive methods play in educational research? What are the consequences of different answers to these questions?

While questions about the demarcation of science are not new, the federal government initiated the current debate with its definition of scientifically based research in the Reading Excellence Act of 1999 (Eisenhart & Towne, 2003). Subsequent federal attempts to delimit science followed in the ‘‘original Castle bill’’ to reauthorize OERI, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) of 2002, which created the Institute for Education Studies (IES) to replace OERI, and the current proposed priorities for IES. These federal definitions of scientifically based research (SBR) have tended to define scientific research in terms of particular methods and to privilege experimental research as the gold standard for evaluating educational programs. They have delimited and prioritized the kinds of educational programs and research agendas for which federal support would be provided.

At the invitation of the Department of Education’s National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board, the National Research Council (NRC)1 assembled a committee to address the question of what constitutes scientific research in education. The committee published its report, Scientific Research in Education (SRE), in 2002 in time to influence ESRA (Eisenhart & Towne, 2003).2 SRE has been disseminated across a wide berth of educational researchers who well recognize that the issues involved have profound implications for the direction of educational research, affecting researchers, the kind of work they do, and the people intended to benefit from their work. Within the educational research community, an increasing array of special issues of journals is being devoted to the ways that ‘‘scientifically based’’ methods are being defined.3

These articles are part of this ferment and grow out of a 2003 AERA panel that we organized, ‘‘Yes, But Is It Science? Implications of the Scientific Research in Education Report for Qualitative Inquiry.’’ In deciding to organize this session, we shared the concern that the SRE report, while offering a somewhat more flexible definition of science, nevertheless privileged the testing and establishment of replicable causal effects and positioned ‘‘qualitative studies’’ as preliminary or supplementary to this task (see Moss, this issue). We were concerned as well about the kinds of research that appeared to be ignored or relegated to the margins of the debate as not scientific and about the effects of these choices. As Lather (2004) describes her concern, in spite of ‘‘the report’s oft-repeated intentions of balance across multiple methods, …objectivity is enshrined and prediction, explanation, and verification override description, interpretation, and discovery’’ (p. 19), thus reinscribing a unified theory of science ‘‘under duress for some 30 years’’ (p. 17). We asked the panelists to consider ways in which those of us who do interpretive or qualitative work might respond resourcefully and effectively to the vision of science portrayed in the NRC report and to the far narrower vision of science portrayed in recent federal legislation and policy statements to which the report responds.

While all of the panelists addressed these questions, they also raised broader concerns about the ways in which the SRE committee responded to its charge. Questions were raised about the marginalizing of forms of research considered not scientific (Erickson), about the advisability of general attempts to demarcate science from nonscience (Gee), about the absence of standards that promote critical dialogue across disciplinary boundaries (Moss), about the adequacy of attention to matters of cultural difference, to relationships between researcher and researched, and to what and whom the report ignores (Siddle-Walker), and about the undervaluing of public critique of educational research in a democratic society (Willinsky). These arguments are presented in this issue along with the response from SRE committee member, Eisenhart, who shares both her reasons for supporting the report and her concerns about why what it says is ‘‘not enough.’’

In seeking to improve the quality of educational practice, our concern is about how educational research can address the complexity and the messiness of practice-in-context which call into question the adequacy of conventional methods, the desirability of generally applicable research and policy standards, and the philosophies of science that prescribe narrow views of these issues. Our hope with this collection of papers is to bring such issues before the educational research community in order to foster discussion of what might be called the politics of the science of the U.S. accountability movement in public education, particularly the implications of legislative efforts for qualitative research in education.


1 The NRC is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. Its charge is ‘‘to synthesize scientific knowledge in a wide range of areas that affect public interest’’ (SRE, p. 6).

2 Eisenhart and Towne (2003) trace the influence of SRE by contrasting the earlier definitions of SBR with the definition that appears in ESRA. While they highlight a subtle move away from the reliance of methods-based definitions of SBR, the recently proposed priorities for the IES (Federal Register, Vol. 68, No. 213, 11/4/03) appear to give the gain away by limiting funding to studies with particular design features.

3 In addition to the ongoing discussion in Educational Researcher, see Qualitative Inquiry, 10(1) and 10(2), special issues on ‘‘the new methodological conservativism,’’ as well as an inprocess issue of Educational Theory, with a symposium organized by Ken Howe. The NRC just released a follow-up report to SRE titled ‘‘Advancing Scientific Research in Education’’ (2004) and has ‘‘established a planning committee to oversee the conceptual development of a broad, long-term initiative related to the quality of evidence’’ in behavioral and social sciences research (Lisa Towne, personal communication).


Eisenhart, M., & Towne, L. (2003). Contestation and change in national policy on scientifically based research. Educational Researcher, 32(7), 31–38.

Lather, P. (2004). This is your father’s paradigm: Government intrusion and the case of qualitative research in education. Qualitative Inquiry, 10(1), 15–34.

National Research Council. (2002). Scientific Research in Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 1, 2005, p. 1-3
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11682, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:37:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Patti Lather
    Ohio State University
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  • Pamela Moss
    University of Michigan

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