Federal

‘Scientific’ Label in Law Stirs Debate

By Debra Viadero — October 16, 2007 5 min read

While other ideas for revamping the No Child Left Behind Act are taking center stage, a quiet debate is unfolding over proposals to tinker with the law’s definition of what constitutes “scientifically based research” in education.

The phrase is one of the most oft-repeated in the lengthy text of the nearly 6-year-old law. Sprinkled through the federal education statute more than 100 times, the references to “scientifically based research” require educators to rely on such studies in choosing everything from approaches to reading instruction to anti-drug programs for students. And that’s not to mention the law’s use of such related terms as “evidence-based” research.

But the legislative definition of “scientifically based research,” which favors randomized or experimental studies over other kinds of research in determining what works in schools, has also been criticized for promoting a narrow view of educational scholarship.

Leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee, in a draft proposal for reauthorizing the NCLB law circulating since late summer, would tone down that emphasis on scientific experiments by stipulating that studies aimed at determining whether an educational program or practice works may include—but are not limited to—random-assignment experiments.

The proposed change has raised concerns among some federal education research officials and research groups.

“I’m not thrilled with that provision,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. He has been spearheading the department’s efforts to promote rigorous education research.

“I don’t know of any credible expert who doesn’t think a randomized research design doesn’t give you the best possible answer to causal questions,” he added.

The Gold Standard

The Knowledge Alliance, a Washington group representing a mix of research and research-and-development centers, also voiced opposition to the draft bill’s proposed change to members of Congress.

But other Washington-based education groups, such as the American Educational Research Association and the Software & Information Industry Association, say the new language would be an improvement over current law.

BRIC ARCHIVE

“For a bill like NCLB, we think it reflects a much more appropriate understanding of research methodology,” Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations of the 25,000-member AERA, said of the proposed change. “My opinion about RCTs [randomized-control trials] is that they are underutilized in educational research and overemphasized in political discussions.”

Known as the “gold standard” for answering cause-and-effect questions, randomized field trials are those in which participants are randomly assigned to either experimental or control groups. Such studies are rare in education, partly because educators balk at giving an intervention to one group of students but not another. While such experiments can determine what works, scholars say, they can’t explain why.

The House draft bill’s proposed definition of “scientifically valid” research is modeled on one used in the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 , which created the IES. But the draft legislation would omit the preference for randomized studies that is now expressed in both the NCLB and the ESRA laws.

Scientifically valid research, the House committee’s proposal states, would include studies that are “rigorous, systematic, and objective” and that present findings and make claims that are “appropriate” to the methods used. The discussion draft also gives a nod to examining the weight of evidence—in other words, the consistency of findings across multiple studies or sites—and presenting clear, detailed data so that findings can be replicated.

“I think there’s a general movement away from the more rigorous definition of the so-called ‘gold bar,’” said Charles Blaschke, the president of Education TURNKEY Systems Inc. of Falls Church, Va., which tracks federal education legislation for publishers.

BRIC ARCHIVE

James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, said the apparent backlash against the current law’s references to “scientifically based research” on Capitol Hill may stem from bad publicity over the Education Department’s management of the Reading First program. The program requires states to use practices grounded in “scientifically based research.”

In a series of reports issued since fall 2006, the department’s inspector general said program administrators may have steered the grant-application process for the $1 billion-a-year initiative to ensure that particular reading programs and instructional approaches were widely used by participating schools, and that others were left out—including some that had solid research track records.

“Reading First didn’t help promote the legitimate implementation of ‘scientifically based research’ and caused a lot of confusion about the concept,” Mr. Kohlmoos said.

‘Rigorous’ and ‘Appropriate’

Meanwhile, a pair of bills introduced in the Senate last month offer yet another view of what “scientifically based research” should look like. Sponsored by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the proposed Proven Programs for the Future of Education Act would grant schools that use “research-proven” programs in Reading First a competitive preference of 10 points. A companion bill, the Education Research and Development to Improve Achievement Act, would authorize up to $100 million for the development and evaluation of such programs.

Both bills say “research-proven” programs are those evaluated by at least two studies that use academically equivalent control and treatment groups, include sample sizes of five or more classes or 125-plus students, and use standardized assessments rather than developer-created measures, among other criteria.

“The hope is that some of what’s in these bills could get folded into NCLB,” said Robert E. Slavin, a co-founder of the Success For All Foundation, whose allegations that the Reading First program was being mismanaged launched the inspector general’s inquiries. Mr. Slavin helped write the proposed definition in the Senate bills.

In the end, though, said Mr. Kohlmoos, lawmakers need to be consistent within NCLB and across other education laws.

“You should have clarity and consistency or the effort to promote rigor goes nowhere,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Scientific’ Label in Law Stirs Debate

Events

School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
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
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education

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: Schools Must Work to Win Trust of Families of Color as They Reopen
As Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced new school reopening resources, he encouraged a focus on equity and student engagement.
4 min read
Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing Feb. 3, 2021.
Now-U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing in February.
Susan Walsh/AP
Federal CDC: Nearly 80 Percent of K-12, Child-Care Workers Have Had at Least One COVID-19 Shot
About four out of five teachers, school staffers, and child-care workers had first COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of March, CDC says.
2 min read
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP
Federal Ed. Dept. to Review Title IX Rules on Sexual Assault, Gender Equity, LGBTQ Rights
The review could reopen a Trump-era debate on sexual assault in schools, and it could spark legal discord over transgender student rights.
4 min read
Symbols of gender.
iStock/Getty
Federal Q&A EdWeek Q&A: Miguel Cardona Talks Summer Learning, Mental Health, and State Tests
In an interview after a school reopening summit, the education secretary also addressed teachers' union concerns about CDC guidance.
10 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17.
Andrew Harnik/AP