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A Bad Month for Education Research

April was a tough month for education research.

First, California's Ravenswood city school district, citing underperformance, voted to shut down one of two charter schools run by researchers at Stanford University's college of education. The second school got a two-year reprieve, giving researchers more time to showcase their ideas for educating low-income students.

Then Newsweek gave the entire field an F. In an April 29th column, Sharon Begley, the magazine's longtime science writer, takes education research to task for having failed to produce reliable evidence on what works in the classroom and laments the unfairness of holding teachers accountable for results when they've never been given the right tools.

"It goes without saying that effective teaching has many components, from dedication to handling a classroom and understanding how individual students learn. But a major ingredient is the curriculum the school requires them to use." she wrote. "Yet in one of those you've-got-to-be-kidding situations, the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal."

Begley is largely correct. Education research has yielded few successes that have been replicated on a large scale. But, as Claus von Zastrow writes in his blog, Begley's criticisms also might not exactly be fair. Relative to medicine, education research is a young field and, as Claus notes, less than 1 percent of the federal research budget goes to education.

As dismal a science as education research may seem right now, it's come far over the last ten years. Once rare, randomized, controlled trials—the scientific gold standard for measuring effectiveness—are far more commonplace in education now. And new efforts continue to be in the works that are aimed at producing practical solutions to the kinds of problems that educators face on the ground every day, rather than the belly-button-contemplating stuff that gives the field a bad name. States are building data systems that will allow researchers to do new and better research, tracking what happens to individual students over time as they progress through school and even head to college. In short, the signs are pointing in the right direction. The problem is that the students who are currently enrolled in schools aren't getting any younger, either, and, for most, this may be their one best shot at a solid education.

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