A growing number of people are aware of the presidents Bush’s No Child Left Behind act because of the testing that it requires. What most people don’t know however, is that in addition to the testing and accountability requirements, the act requires new curriculum to be backed up by authentic scientific research. In fact, the words “scientific research” are mentioned over 100 times in the act. These requirements are an indictment of the poor reputation that “Educational Research” has earned among many.
It is ironic that, in the field of education, the very institution that promotes the teaching of history can’t seem to learn from it! As a result, teachers have had to deal with one fad after another that were touted to be the result of the latest “Research”. The truth is that many, if not most, of these fads have no valid research behind them.
Understand that, “Research says”, or “Research based” in educational circles doesn’t mean scientific research. Educational research most often does not include randomized controlled trials, replication or independent peer review essential in real research. Instead, “Educational Research”, especially with regard to new curriculum, is often conducted by people who have a financial stake in the outcome of the research. This fact would be scandalous and invalidate the research in any other field but it is common practice in the field of education.
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), an organization that screens and studies educational interventions, recently examined 800 so called "research studies" on middle school math programs. They found that because of the inadequate methodologies used, only 11 of the 800 studies could be considered valid research.
So, here comes one of the latest controversial fads: Reform Math. Some of the most common names of reform math programs are Mathland, Connected Mathematics, Everyday Math and Core Plus. There are too many others to mention. These programs were all developed using “Educational Research” methods. There were no randomized controlled trials or independent peer reviews of these programs yet they claim to be the “end all” when it comes to new methodology for learning mathematics. The truth is they are radical and experimental programs that make our kids their guinea pigs. The results from these programs have been mixed at best and at worst have caused great harm to students.
Consider Mathland, a reform program for elementary age children. California used Mathland extensively in the early 1990’s, but the corresponding drop in basic skills test scores resulted in such an uproar that eventually the state refused to allow any state monies to be spent on the curriculum. Mathland has been tried and dropped by numerous school districts around the nation, but that hasn’t stopped some reform minded school districts from blindly continuing to use it claiming it is “Research based” curriculum.
Core Plus is a High School level reform math program that has also been surrounded by controversy. In 1999, Core Plus was one of 10 programs to be named exemplary by a so called “Expert Panel” from the federal department of education. At the time, Core Plus had not been around long enough for authentic research or other long term studies to be completed on the curriculum, but that didn’t stop the panel from hastily recommending it and five other reform programs as exemplary. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the one mathematician on the panel, Manuel Berriozabal, abstained or voted against all 10 programs.
In 1998 Professor Gregory Bachelis of Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan surveyed college students that had graduated the previous year from Andover High School. Andover was using the Core Plus program for mathematics and Bachelis wanted to know how the students felt the program prepared them for college mathematics. Student after student reported that Core Plus left them totally unprepared for college mathematics and many of them were quite angry about it.
A recent study of 3000 Michigan students found that Core Plus students took fewer advanced math courses in college, had lower grades in mathematics and shied away from majors that required advanced mathematics as compared to non Core Plus students. This type of information was totally dismissed by the promoters of Core Plus. In fact, it seems that while scientific research starts with a hypothesis and tries to disprove it, educational research starts with a hypothesis and ignores any evidence to the contrary.
The No Child Left Behind act to the rescue!
The NCLB act is a bold attempt to correct many of the deficiencies that have plagued the American educational system. The act is not perfect and may need to be tweaked in some areas but it has the potential to do more good than harm. The act not only is an attempt to increase the accountability of schools, administrators, teachers and students by requiring minimum standards, but it is an attempt to raise the standards within the educational research community itself. Hopefully, some of the past deficiencies will be recognized and attempts will be made to raise the "research bar". In the meanwhile, parents, teachers and administrators alike need to remember when they are being told that "research says"; if it defies common sense, it probably has no common sense behind it.