|Issue Number 29||
Improving Education: A Political Agenda,
How does one design and carry out research that can provide useful
comparisons among various projects designed to improve education? If
educating children was like raising a farm crop, it would be easy.
Research and development in creating higher yielding, more
disease-resistant crops has had a long and successful history. See, for
Moreover, when researchers and developers produce a better strain of
corn, wheat, or apples, the results are relatively quickly implemented
by a large number of different growers.
In agriculture, there are a number of criteria that can be measured fairly accurately. One can measure the cost of fertilizer, the cost of pesticides, the amount of water needed, the cost of planting and harvesting, crop yields per acre, resistance of a crop to disease, resistance to bruising and other damage in getting a product to market, the length of the growing season, and so on.
Some farmers will value one measure more than another, so they will not all make the same decisions. For example, in an arid climate area where water is quite expensive, the amount of water needed may be a major consideration.
Now, think about the same ideas, but in terms of individual children, individual teachers, and so on. We know that each child (even identical twins) is different from each other child. We know that each teacher is unique.
There are other significant factors in education. For example, culture, religion, and family income make a difference. Thus, research in improving education faces vastly different challenges than research in agriculture or in industrial manufacturing.
The industrial manufacturing statement reminds me of the Science Channel “How its Made” program that I like to watch on television. The program shows some of the details of the process of making various products, such as air conditioners, washing machines, fire extinguishers, footballs, and tennis rackets. In all cases there is an inspection process. In some cases inspection is highly automated, and in other cases humans do individual inspections. It is common that products that do not pass inspection are discarded.
Contrast this with our education system. We cannot and do not discard children. Our education system has many factory-like characteristics, but it values every single child. “No child left behind” is a powerful statement. To the extent that our educational system has factory-like characteristics, we want a system that produces very few defective products, and that “repairs” rather than discards products that are not as good as we want them to be.
Some Educational Research Examples
Educators make use of a statistic named effect size in comparing the effects of various treatments. Quoting from the Brookings Institution document:
The report then goes on to analyze the effect size of various
reform movements, such as charter schools, improving teacher
preparation, merit pay, early childhood programs, setting higher
standards, and so on. I found the information provided to be quite
interesting. Thus, for example, the article provided a number of
different examples of research to improve math education, and the
effect sizes of various somewhat successful approaches.
The following paragraph seems particularly important to me:
The statement about “seven math curricula” is interesting. We do not
have the situation of “one size fits all,” but we come close to having
a situation where “seven sizes fit all.”
This type of group effect size research does not focus at the level of individual students. Rather, it takes data from group tests (in some sense, the larger the groups the better) and compares treatment (the book used) versus test scores. It is useful research, but is far distant from the idea of “No child left behind.”
The article provides a number of such research examples. The overall focus is on supporting the contention that the curriculum is a very important variable in educational reform. I think that the article makes a good case in support of this contention.
However, keep in mind that we are well along toward being able to
develop curriculum that is highly individualized. The Highly Interactive Intelligent Computer Assisted Learning systems
that are being produced can be thought of as curriculum and delivery
systems that are more individualized than a book and teacher can be
when faced by a class of 25 to 35 or more individual students. See http://www.i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2009-26.html. In my opinion, therein lies the future of much of our educational system
Interestingly, as more and better HIICAL becomes available, we can do both the traditional research and we can do single subject design. This type of research is quite often used in special education. It involves working with one student, and varying conditions for that student. See http://www.practicalpress.net/updatenov05/SingleSubject.html. In essence, HIICAL will eventually become better and better at measuring how well an individual student is learning and in automatically making changes to try to improve the learning outcomes. Individual human tutors can do this—but a teacher using “the” book and faced by a large number of diverse students cannot do this very well.
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