Education Research: Does the United States Have the Right Model?

Recently in NCEE’s blog, Marc Tucker asked a compelling question: Is the United States employing the right approach to education research? The evidence points to an answer of no. Excerpts from the piece appear below: 

Many years ago, in 1971, I (Tucker) was asked to join the White House unit set up to plan for the establishment of the National Institute of Education (NIE), a new federal agency to be exclusively focused on education research. Since then, the people of the United States have spent tens of billions of dollars on education research in today’s dollars.  

When NIE was established, the aim was explicit: To have an agency that would do for education what the National Institutes of Health were doing for medicine, to make scientific discoveries that would lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement.  But there have been no advances in the achievement of our high school students at all…in 50 years. Is it possible that our researchers have been looking in the wrong place with the wrong methods?

The problem is rooted in our shared conception of the best way to improve student performance. That conception is based on the way we do education research and evaluation.  The idea is borrowed from clinical medicine, the way we do medical research: Identify a disease or condition, identify possible treatments and then conduct controlled experiments to measure the effects of the treatment on the condition or disease, having controlled for all the other possible factors that might have produced the observed effects.  But the adoption of the clinical medicine model has proven to be a terrible handicap.

“What’s wrong with it?”, you ask. “It has produced enormous improvements in the health sector, why not in education?” Because there is an enormous difference between education and health.  In the case of human health, the design of the system is a given. It is the design of a human being. The purpose of medical research is not to design a better human being. It is to address disorders within that system.  So, it makes sense to isolate specific disorders and isolate treatments of those disorders and look for treatments that will reliably address the disorders under stated conditions.

In the case of education, the issue is the design of the system.  NCEE’s research on education systems all over the world makes this abundantly clear. There is very little magic in the “treatments.”  Everyone knows, for example, that students will perform better if they come to school ready for the curriculum the school offers, if that curriculum is set to high standards and taught by highly-qualified teachers who have high expectations for their students.  Those points are not in dispute. The question, rarely asked in the United States, is how to design and implement well-constructed, highly-integrated systems that run that way, reliably, for all students.  

What we should be doing is researching high-performance systems in countries, states and provinces the size of American states, so we can learn what we need to learn to build and run high-performance systems that are as good as the world’s best.

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