Data-Driven Educational Initiatives

Source: NYTimes, Sep 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.

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.

So far, the office — the Institute of Education Sciences — has supported 175 randomized studies. Some have already concluded; among the findings are that one popular math textbook was demonstrably superior to three competitors, and that a highly touted computer-aided math-instruction program had no effect on how much students learned.

The studies are far from easy to do.

“It is an order of magnitude more complicated to do clinical trials in education than in medicine,” said F. Joseph Merlino, president of the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, an independent nonprofit organization. “In education, a lot of what is effective depends on your goal and how you measure it.”

Then there is the problem of getting schools to agree to be randomly assigned to use an experimental program or not.

“There is an art to doing it,” Mr. Merlino said. “We don’t usually go and say, ‘Do you want to be part of an experiment?’ We say, ‘This is an important study; we have things to offer you.’  ”


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