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Scientifically Based Research

Nancy Creech wrote: You might enjoy doing a little discourse analysis at this site.
Click here: Scientifically Based Research -- U.S. Department of Education

Susan Neuman, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education hosted this gathering. She began her welcoming statement with these words:

"One of our goals today?we have a very practical goal actually. We're no longer debating whether scientifically based research and scientifically based evidence is important, we know it now is important and we know it is critical. As many of you know, we have counted one hundred and eleven times that the phrase "scientifically based research" is in our new law."

Two things struck me on first reading:

First: The presentation by Valerie Reyna, Deputy for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement was at a very elementary level. Who in that room needed this sort of basic introduction to science?

Second, the scientists they called on to define scientifically-based research defined it much less narrowly than Reid Lyon, et.al. have done. And they stressed that something is "scientific" not because the government says it is, but because it withstands critical scrutiny.

But the scientists were only window-dressing. The core purpose of the program was revealed in the afternoon sessions. Look at the presentation on reading < http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/esea/research/greer.html >--you won't be surprised to see phonemic awareness and phonics listed as number one and number two of the five elements research has proven essential to reading instruction. In fact, the presenter (Dr. Eunice Greer, identified as a reading consultant from Illinois) stated, "Most of my comments today are drawn from the National Reading Panel Report that was delivered late in the year 2000." Whenever someone mentions the National Reading Panel, remember that the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences did a report on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, which did not endorse Phonics-uber-alles. While it is possible to disagree with specific emphases in the NRC report, that report was explicitly designed to reflect the scientific consensus on reading instruction.Reid Lyon put together his panel because he didn't like what science is really telling us.

Still, it may be possible to draw on what these scientists said to oppose the highly restrictive definitions of "scientific" likely to be embodied in proposed U.S. Department. of Education regulations.

Speaking on the basic principles of scientifically based research, Lisa Towne of the Center for Education of the National Research Council said:

"Replicating" is a very core notion in science. It has to do with the fact that since in any particular study you're only relying on a limited set of observations, to what extent does what you're looking at here and now generalize to other times, places and contexts. In education, as you know, this is a critical question. Teachers and researchers alike have been knowing for years that something that works in a particular classroom may not work in the classroom next door and may not work in the same classroom a year later. So attention to sort of what's going on in the classroom at that time can help you understand the conditions under which things tend to work and therefore how to think about how findings can generalize from one time to another.

"I'll go on to the last principle here, which has to do with the transparency of the scientific enterprise. Valerie alluded to this as well. This just has to do with the role of the scientific community actually working together to try and make sense of all of the findings and all of the conclusions that come from individual studies. Educators often bemoan what there perceive as bickering among the research community and we'll grant you that there is some bickering. But there is actually something important to say about that and that is that researchers are actually trained and employed and paid money to be skeptical observers and to ask critical questions. That's their job. So, this critical kind of work, critiquing other peoples findings and trying to make sense of them is actually an indication of the health of the scientific enterprise, not its failure."

<SNIP> "at one level there is a difference between the so-called hard and soft sciences. And, that has to do with differences that emanate from studying inanimate objects and studying people, which are complex and do crazy things that we often can't understand or predict very well.

"So, there are some things that are different. Broadly, research or control is one of them. Think of it this way, a petri dish of heart cells is a heck of a lot better behaved than a classroom of third graders. Anyone whose tried to study education research and has done cell biology, as one of my committee members did, can attest to this.

"There's other things that are different. I'll just touch on this last one on the slide which has to do with certainty. Valerie said, and the committee completely agrees, that science is by definition an uncertain enterprise. The key is understanding the degree of uncertainty that is associated with what we know. In general terms, in the physical sciences we because of this ability to control the environment tend to have more certainty associated with them than sciences that have to do with people, like education research."

Stephen Raudenbush of the University of Michigan said, "A scientist is expected to search for disconfirming evidence, and that's a crucial feature."


He continued, "The role of the scientific community is key. It's a healthy scientific community who can?and this relates to democracy, being able to freely evaluate alternative points of view, not feel that there's going to be some censorship.

"The people who are committed to the principles I just mentioned who evaluate this, the process of objectivity really involves this group of people engaging in this ongoing debate. Scientists, as was mentioned, are trained to be skeptical and that process can really work. What's really in the final analysis scientific is what the community of scientists says is scientific."


Raudenbush went on to say, " Does qualitative research play a role? I would say, yes, without doubt. Because we need to not just test the impact of things out in the field, we need to do a lot more of that. We haven't done enough. But we have to have good things to take into the field. We have to have good ideas about how to teach math, how to teach reading. Those ideas come from up close, careful study of expert practitioners in real settings and how kids learn. So, we need that up close kind of research but see we've got to do a better job of connecting that research with field trials of what works, and that's what's really been missing."


"My tenth and final question is: Is there any danger here that we are going to be overselling the role of science in education? I think there is.

"I've got a quote here from E. L. Thorndike who wrote the lead article in the founding edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1910. I won't read the entire quote except to say that Thorndike felt that a scientific psychology was about to produce decisive evidence on virtually every practical question that arises in education. We know in retrospect that he was wrong. Unfortunately, by overselling what science can do, it led to a crisis of, you might say, rising expectations that couldn't be met. For a long time thereafter science in education fell into disarray.

"The same thing happened in the '60s with scientific problem solving, the idea that we would have kind of a social engineering model. We'd try programs, we'd evaluate them, we'd get feedback, the programs would get better and the great society was going to be born out of this sort of scientific and engineering model. That was an overselling. We couldn't really pull that off.

"So, let's make sure that we have a balanced view this time. I am so excited that we have an opportunity to do it, to do it right without overselling it this time."