Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion
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

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
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
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
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools
Head of Lower School
San Diego, California
San Diego Jewish Academy

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read