Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Essay Overlooks the Limits of ‘Positivistic’ Research

March 11, 2008 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Nearly a Million Kids Vaccinated in Week 1, White House Says
Experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.
4 min read
Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Last week, U.S. health officials gave the final signoff to Pfizer's kid-size COVID-19 shot, a milestone that opened a major expansion of the nation's vaccination campaign to children as young as 5. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Education How Schools Are Getting Kids the COVID Shot, and Why Some Aren’t
Some district leaders say offering vaccine clinics, with the involvement of trusted school staff, is key to helping overcome hesitancy.
5 min read
A girl walks outside of a mobile vaccine unit after getting the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccine, outside P.S. 277, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Education Biden Administration Urges Schools to Provide COVID-19 Shots, Information for Kids
The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host vaccine clinics for kids and information on benefits of the shots.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)