Gene V. Glass is one of our nation’s most distinguished education researchers.

This post is an important analysis of the failure of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which was reorganized during the George W. Bush administration.

As a new administration moves into the US Department of Education, the opportunity arises to review and assess the Department’s past practices. A recent publication goes to the heart of how US DOE has been attempting to influence public education. Unfortunately, in an effort to justify millions of dollars spent on research and development, bureaucrats pushed a favorite instructional program that teachers flatly rejected.

The Gold Standard

There is a widespread belief that the best way to improve education is to get practitioners to adopt practices that “scientific” methods have proven to be effective. These increasingly sophisticated methods are required by top research journals and for federal government improvement initiatives such as Investing in Innovation (i3) Initiative to fund further research or dissemination efforts. The US DOE established the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to identify the scientific gold-standards and apply them to certify for practitioners which programs “work.” The Fed’s “gold standard” is the Randomized Comparative Trial (RCT). In addition, there have been periodic implementations of US DOE policies that require practitioners to use government funds only for practices that the US DOE has certified to be effective.

However, an important new article published by Education Policy Analysis Archives, concludes that these gold-standard methods misrepresent the actual effectiveness of interventions and thereby mislead practitioners by advocating or requiring their use. The article is entitled “The Failure of the U.S. Education Research Establishment to Identify Effective Practices: Beware Effective Practices Policies.”

The Fool’s Gold

Earlier published work by the author, Professor Stanley Pogrow of San Francisco State University, found that the most research validated program, Success for All, was not actually effective. Quite the contrary! Pogrow goes further and analyzes why these gold-standard methods can not be relied on to guide educators to more effective practice.

Researchers have told us that we need “randomized comparative trials” to reach “research-based conclusions.”

In fact, says Glass and the article he cites, this is not what happens. And the results of these trials turn out to be easily manipulated and falsified.

He writes:

Key problems with the Randomized Comparative Trial include (1) the RCT almost never tells you how the experimental students actually performed, (2) that the difference between groups that researchers use to consider a program to be effective is typically so small that it is “difficult to detect” in the real world, and (3) statistically manipulating the data to the point that the numbers that are being compared are mathematical abstractions that have no real world meaning—and then trying to make them intelligible with hypothetical extrapolations such the difference favoring the experimental students is the equivalent of increasing results from the 50th to the 58th percentile, or an additional month of learning. The problem is that we do not know if the experimental students actually scored at the 58th or 28th percentile. So in the end, we end up not knowing how students in the intervention actually performed, and any benefits that are found are highly exaggerated.

The sad part of the story is that we now have a new administration that is both ignorant of research and indifferent to it. DeVos has seen the failure of school choice in her own state, which has plummeted in the national rankings since 2003, and it has had no impact on her ideology. Ideology is not subject to testing or research. It is a deep-seated belief system that cannot be dislodged by evidence.