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It's Not About a Philosophy of Science

Posted By: Dick Schutz on November 30, 2007
The neo-positivists/logical positivists/logical empiricists (synonymous appellations; check it out in Wikipedia) of the first half of the 20th century are spinning in their graves if they are monitoring the current U.S. policy regarding “educational research.” Neither is it fair to pin all the blame on the “present Administration.” The definition of “scientifically based research is embedded in legislation with bipartisan support.

The definition is about as far removed from Isador Rabi’s famous aphorism, “Science means doing your damndest with your mind, no holds barred.” Terming the randomized-control experiment “the Gold Standard” of science is ridiculous. And equating it with the “medical model” overlooks the fact that this design is the last step in a series of regulated R&D steps conducted over a number of years. Restricting all one-shot studies to this design is also ridiculous.

In fairness, the Feds are “making gains” in the definition. The definition in the “Improving Head Start Act of 2007” adds “reliable” to paragraph (iii) and adds two additional paragraphs that provide both greater wiggle room and clarity:

“(iv) is evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental designs in which individuals, entities, programs or activities are assigned to different conditions and with appropriate controls to evaluate the effects of the condition of interest, with a preference for random assignment experiments, or other designs to the extent that those designs contain within-condition or across-condition controls;
(v) ensures that experimental studies are presented in sufficient detail and clarity to allow for replication or, at a minimum, offer the opportunity to build systematically on their findings; “

The most pernicious consequences of the legislated definitions lie in their interpretation/regulation by Administration officials. In administering NCLB, none (with possibly one or two exceptions) of the programs approved for funding was subjected to research that even approximated conformance with the definition. Rhetorical statements that they were based on the “5 essentials” legislated as the “new science of reading” sufficed. So the scientific basis of prevailing reading instruction is a travesty.

The “What Works Clearinghouse” judges not specified educational accomplishments, but whether the research was conducted per the definition. Non-statistically significant differences are given credence, and a program, Reading Recovery” which was not approved by NCLB officials and which has been found to not reliably “recover” children was reported as “working” by the Clearinghouse. The kit-and-caboodle of products/procedures/techniques the Clearinghouse claims to “work” yields a fragmentary, laughable dog’s dinner to dish out to kids and teachers.

It’s amazing that the academic and school communities are not objecting loudly if not rioting in the streets. The media also appear content to report press releases, so the citizenry remains uninformed about what is going on.

In short, the bad news and consequences extend far beyond those that Belzer and St. Clair report for Adult Education.

Dick Schutz
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 It's Not About a Philosophy of Science by Dick Schutz on November 30, 2007
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