AERA Stresses Value of Alternatives to ‘Gold Standard’

Experiment not only route to solid findings, panel says.
By Debra Viadero — April 12, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

At a time when federal education officials are holding up scientific experiments as a gold standard for studies in the field, a report by the nation’s largest education research group suggests there are also other methods that are nearly as good for answering questions about what works in schools.

The report, produced by a committee of scholars of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, was released April 11 at the group’s 88th annual meeting here. It highlights ways in which researchers can use large-scale data sets, such as those maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, for analyzing cause-and-effect questions in education.

Barbara Schneider

“It’s not a question of either-or,” said Barbara Schneider, the chair of the committee and a professor of educational administration and sociology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “It’s about the importance of building capacity in our field. We need researchers who can use a variety of methods to answer appropriate research questions.”

Under the Bush administration, the Education Department has been promoting randomized-control trials in a campaign to transform education into an evidence-based field, not unlike medicine, and improve the quality of education research.

The AERA scholars, in their report, don’t argue with the value of rigorous experimentation for making causal inferences. Yet, they note, there are also times when such studies, which can involve randomly assigning students or classrooms to either an experimental or a control group, are not feasible or ethical. To test what happens when students repeat a grade, for instance, researchers can’t ask schools to randomly hold back some students while promoting others.

“Randomized-control trials are the gold standard,” said Richard J. Shavelson, a study author and a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University. “But they have limitations, and there are a lot of excellent data sets available that can also be used and that don’t necessarily fit with the randomized-control-trial model.”

Statistical Techniques

The problem with some studies that draw on large-scale observational studies, such as the Education Department’s High School and Beyond Study or the National Education Longitudinal Study, is that researchers fail to statistically account for differences between subjects in groups under study.

One example: Students who attend private schools might come from wealthier homes, and start out with greater educational advantages, than their public school counterparts. Such differences make simple comparisons between the two groups suspect.

In recent decades, though, with advances in high-speed computing and the importing of research techniques pioneered in fields such as economics, reliable methods for reducing potential biases between study groups have become more accessible to education researchers. In their report, the AERA researchers highlighted four such methods:

  • Fixed-effects models, which involve adjusting for unmeasured characteristics that don’t change over time, such as the impact of a mother’s personality on children in the same family;
  1. Testing for instrumental variables, which are characteristics that should be linked with the treatment but not with the outcome;
  1. Propensity scoring, a method that calls for building statistical profiles that predict the probability that individuals with certain characteristics will be part of a treatment group and testing results against alternative hypotheses; and
  1. Regression-discontinuity analyses, a technique in which researchers compare subjects that fall just below or just above some cutoff point, such as a proficient level on a standardized test.

While all four methods have their own drawbacks, the researchers say, they also represent an improvement over most of the techniques, such as simple correlational studies, that researchers relied on the make sense of the data in those large-scale studies. Researchers need to know which methods are appropriate for answering which kinds of questions, according to the report.

William H. Schmidt

“There are lots of people who, with limited information, try to make causal inferences leading to major policy directions, said William H. Schmidt, a study author and an education professor at Michigan State. “This is an attempt to say there are principles for this.”

Speaking to the Field

Titled “Estimating Causal Effects: Using Experimental and Observational Designs,” the 142-page consensus report was produced by the research group’s grants board, an expert panel created 17 years ago with the aim of building the field’s capacity for conducting quantitative analyses.

Panel members said they undertook the study project in 2003 at the behest of the National Science Foundation, which along with the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics underwrites the AERA grants board’s work. Leading methodologists outside the board also reviewed and critiqued drafts of the study, the authors said.

Panelists said the report, which the research group hopes to make available for free on it Web site,can provide guidance to policymakers and the news media as well as to colleges of education and other researchers.

“One of the things this monograph does is it really speaks to our field,” said Anthony S. Bryk, a Stanford education professor who commented on the panel’s recommendations at the April 9-13 meeting. He noted that many policy analyses in education are now done by scholars outside the field, such as economists or think tank researchers.

“We need people who can do this kind of work at the same level of expertise and skill as people in schools of public policy,” Mr. Bryk said, “but who want to work in colleagueship with people who have deep understanding about schools and how they work.”

“Otherwise,” he added, “we’ll end up with elegant studies that reach wrong conclusions.”

Related Tags:

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week


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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

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

Federal Miguel Cardona Came in as a Teacher Champion. Has COVID Muted His Message?
The education secretary is taking heat from some who say his advocacy is overshadowed by Biden's push to keep schools open.
11 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks to students at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y. on April 22, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks to students at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y., last April.
Mark Lennihan/AP
Federal Citing Educator and Parent Anxieties, Senators Press Biden Officials on Omicron Response
Lawmakers expressed concern about schools' lack of access to masks and coronavirus tests, as well as disruptions to in-person learning.
5 min read
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, testify before a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, testify at a Senate hearing about the federal response to COVID-19.
Greg Nash/Pool via AP
Federal Miguel Cardona Should Help Schools Push Parents to Store Guns Safely, Lawmakers Say
More than 100 members of Congress say a recent shooting at a Michigan high school underscores the need for Education Department action.
3 min read
Three Oakland County Sheriff's deputies survey the grounds outside of the residence of parents of the Oxford High School shooter on Dec. 3, 2021, in Oxford, Mich.
Three Oakland County Sheriff's deputies survey the grounds outside of the Crumbley residence while seeking James and Jennifer Crumbley, parents of Oxford High School shooter Ethan Crumbley, on Dec. 3, 2021, in Oxford, Mich.
Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP
Federal In Reversal, Feds Seek to Revive DeVos-Era Questions About Sexual Misconduct by Educators
The Education Department's decision follows backlash from former education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other conservatives.
4 min read
Illustration of individual carrying binary data on his back to put back into the organized background of 1s and 0s.
iStock/Getty Images Plus