Guesses and hype give way to data in study of education

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What works in science and math education? Until recently, there had been few solid answers—just guesses and hunches, marketing hype, and extrapolations from small pilot studies.

But now, a little-known office in the Education Department is starting to get some real data, using a method that has transformed medicine: the randomized clinical trial, in which groups of subjects are randomly assigned to get either an experimental therapy, the standard therapy, a placebo or nothing.

The findings could be transformative, researchers say. For example, one conclusion from the new research is that the choice of instructional materials—textbooks, curriculum guides, homework, quizzes—can affect achievement as profoundly as teachers themselves; a poor choice of materials is at least as bad as a terrible teacher, and a good choice can help offset a bad teacher’s deficiencies.

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