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National Research Council (2002). Scientific research in education. Committee on Scientific Principles for Education Research. Shavelson, R.J., and Towne, L., Editors. Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Scientific Research
in Education
The report can be purchased for $20 from NAP and/or read online for free at With each of the page citations, links are to the relevant pages on the NAP Web site.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is currently on the minds of teachers and administrators around the country. As part this bill, there is demand for "scientifically based research in education." What does that mean? And how could it affect math teachers? The answer to the first question is what the recent report, Scientific Research in Education, prepared by the "Committee on Scientific Principles for Education Research" tries to address. The answer to the second question depends on how teachers, legislators, and the public respond to the current mandates for such research.

What follows is a brief summary of the report that will only give an overview of some the ideas presented. The purpose is not to give a review of the report, but rather to highlight a few key points that may be of interest to teachers. The full report is available from the National Academy Press and it is worth reading by any teacher who wants to acquire context for the current debates about research and education and gain some sense about where the discussion is headed.

The Committee that authored the report contains researchers from such fields as statistics, chemistry, sociology, biology and medicine as well as education researchers. They state the context in the following way:

There is long-standing debate among scholars, policy makers, and others about the nature and value of scientific research in education and the extent to which it has produced the kind of cumulative knowledge expected of scientific endeavors. Most recently, this skepticism led to proposed legislation that defines what constitutes rigorous scientific methods for conducting education research (p. 1)

The Committee's charge was to "review and synthesize recent literature on the science and practice of scientific educational research and consider how to support high quality science in a federal education research agency." (p. 1)

While acknowledging that "there is no one method or process that unambiguously defines science," the report sees one of it's primary purposes as providing "guidance for what constitutes rigorous scientific research." (p. 24) They reject the idea that research is "anything goes" and also reject the other extreme that says only narrow behaviorist approaches are appropriate.

As background, the Committee notes the current reputation of educational research is bad.

The prevailing view is that findings from education research studies are of low quality and are endlessly contested-the result of which is that no consensus emerges about anything. (p. 28)

The authors claim that this skepticism is not new, and can be seen most recently in the press release of U.S. Representative Michael Castle (R-DE):

Education research is broken in our country. . . and Congress must work to make it more useful. . . . Research needs to be conducted on a more scientific basis. Educators and policy makers need objective, reliable research. .. . (p. 28)

This skepticism has been part of educational research from the beginning. It is barely 100 years old, and there have been arguments from the beginning as to what educational research was, what parts of it were valid, and what parts were useful. Despite this, educational research has grown. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has 20,000 members, over a quarter of them identify research as their primary responsibility. (p. 14)

The committee holds that "At its core, scientific inquiry is the same in all fields," and that "[t]he scientific enterprise depends on a healthy community of researchers and is guided by a set of fundamental principles. These principles are not a set of rigid standards for conducting and evaluating individual studies, but rather are a set of norms enforced by the community of researchers that shape scientific understanding." (p. 2)

A key feature of the report that may be of particular interest to teachers is the set of illustrations of how knowledge accumulates in different fields of research. Compare the short history of modern molecular biology, "Differential Gene Activation," (pp. 31-33) that has led from Mendel to the map of the genome with the history of research on the importance of phonics to learning to read (pp. 38-41) which has converged to the notion that "phonological awareness is a necessary, but not sufficient, competency for understanding the meaning embedded in print, which is the ultimate goal of learning to read." Another short, but enlightening history, is provided in the section on "Educational Resources and Student Achievement" (pp. 41-44). Beginning with the Coleman Report of the 1960's we see how politics colors research findings and how easy it is to misinterpret those findings. In the end, we are left with more questions about the relationship of resources to achievement than answers.

They list six guiding principles that "underlie all scientific inquiry, including education research:"

  1. Pose Significant Questions That Can Be Investigated Empirically
  2. Link Research to Relevant Theory
  3. Use Methods That Permit Direct Investigation of the Question
  4. Provide a Coherent and Explicit Chain of Reasoning
  5. Replicate and Generalize Across Studies
  6. Disclose Research to Encourage Professional Scrutiny and Critique (elaboration of these principles is on pp. 3-5 and pp. 50-79)

The debates are shaping the approaches that determine how schools will be supported, and this report is a good overview of those debates. A more detailed summary is the executive summary of the report itself. (pp. 1-10)

There is a series of articles about this report in the November 2002 issue of Educational Researcher (Vol. 31, No. 8), available online at

Questions for discussion:

  • The report maintains that education is a "highly contested field" (p. 17). What role can and should teachers play in determining the direction of research in education? Will that make it a more or less contested field?

  • Is it possible, or even desirable, to insulate educational research from ideology?

  • Here's a quote from a recent Education Week article (see,
    "The research in math is really in its infancy," Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the director of the department's new Institute of Education Sciences, said in his speech. "What it provides in policy and practice is educated guesses."
    If it is true that research in math is in its infancy, what are the key questions it should address as it matures?

  • What role will digital technologies play in education research? The report says little about this, and yet there is no question that technology are a major influence in research and practice in almost all other fields.

-George Reese

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