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Education Studies Warrant Skepticism

By Walt Gardner — June 01, 2015 1 min read
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At a time when taxpayers increasingly demand evidence that public schools are doing their job, studies conducted by universities, think tanks and government agencies carry great weight. But a healthy skepticism is in order until the results are replicated by qualified others (“Don’t Trust Studies, Studies Show,” The Weekly Standard, May 18).

This is traditionally done by peer review of the evidence. The trouble is that sound peer review can no longer be assumed (“The Corruption of Peer Review Is Harming Scientific Credibility,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 13, 2014). As a result, the combination of lack of sophistication on the part of lay people and the lack of objectivity on the part of reviewers makes it virtually impossible for taxpayers to know how well students are being educated.

I subscribe to newspapers and magazines of all stripes as a way of keeping abreast of how public schools are viewed. I’m always surprised how little intelligence has to do with what is written in letters to the editor, which is the usual forum for the print media, and in various online formats. People tend to believe studies that reinforce their prior opinions. When the studies come from a brand name, that completely closes the door to further inquiry (“What’s Behind Big Science Frauds?” The New York Times, May 23).

The success of charter schools, for example, is the subject of dueling studies. How many people know which study is correct? If it is true that half of published research is incorrect, I wonder what percentage of educational research falls into that category (“How science goes wrong,” The Economist, Oct. 19, 2013)? The answer to that question has far-reaching implications not only for charter schools but for the future of all public schools in this country.

The latest example is the release of the new K-12 science curriculum (“Schoolroom Climate Change Indoctrination,” The Wall Street Journal, May 28). The standards are based on a framework from the National Research Council, which is the prestigious research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. I have confidence in its expertise. But not everyone does, particularly when a controversial issue such as global warming is involved.

So if there’s one takeaway, it’s that blind faith in everything empirical is bound to be misleading (“When Fraud Rocks a Science Journal,” The New York Times, May 29).

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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