Education Letter to the Editor

Essay Overlooks the Limits of ‘Positivistic’ Research

March 11, 2008 2 min read

To the Editor:

Frederick M. Hess and Jeffrey R. Henig bring desperately needed insights from postmodern epistemology into the positivistic education-policy realm (“‘Scientific Research’ and Policymaking: A Tool Not a Crutch,” Commentary, Feb. 6, 2008). As they note, many advocates in our society overclaim what research can find, and oversell these overclaimed findings.

Mr. Hess and Mr. Henig acknowledge that medical-model, randomized-trial studies cannot be effectively conducted when it comes to policy issues of “governance, management, compensation, and deregulation.”

Having stepped into postmodern territory with these insights, they then unfortunately jump back into the positivistic fold by claiming that “randomized field trials are the optimal course for assessing pedagogical and curricular approaches for increasing knowledge and skills via the application of discrete treatments to identifiable students under specified conditions.”

But are these two territories of inquiry, policy and the classroom, so different? Positivism requires the treatment to be standardized, but in schools, every “treatment” is filtered through the persona of one or several unique human beings. Teachers are not pharmaceuticals, nor are treatments likely to be “discrete.” And “specified conditions”? How do we ensure specification when schools are so routinely diverse?

In addition, most measurements in positivistic studies tell us little on what we care about most: the long-term effects of the “treatment.” Significant medical-model studies take decades. How many educational studies approach this norm?

But even if they did, human beings live in history—and in culture. Over a span of a hundred years, we expect the human body to stay relatively the same. But our children’s lives now are very different from what children’s lives were only 10 years ago, let alone 40 or 50.

History is in motion. Culture changes. And despite Mr. Hess and Mr. Henig’s assertion to the contrary, what goes on in the classroom is rarely precise or in “controlled circumstances.” It’s far more complex and emergent.

Positivistic, empirical science has been an incredibly powerful tool for human beings when it comes to understanding and manipulating the physical world. But in social science, positivism is a very limited technology. Postmodern epistemologists have described these limitations for more than 30 years. Isn’t it time for people in the education policy world to wake up and pay attention?

David Marshak

Bellingham, Wash.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Essay Overlooks the Limits of ‘Positivistic’ Research