Features of Education and Education Research
In Chapter 3 the committee argues that the guiding principles for scientific research in education are the same as those in the social, physical, and life sciences. Yet the ways that those principles are instantiated—in astrophysics, biochemistry, labor economics, cultural anthropology, or mathematics teaching—depend on the specific features of what is being studied. That is, each field has features that influence what questions are asked, how research is designed, how it is carried out, and how it is interpreted and generalized. Scholars working in a particular area establish the traditions and standards for how to most appropriately apply the guiding principles to their area of study (Diamond, 1999).
In this chapter, we describe how our principles of science translate in the study of education—a rich tapestry of teaching, learning, and schooling. In particular, we briefly discuss five features of education that shape scientific inquiry, and describe how these features affect research. We argue that a key implication of these features of education is the need to account for influential contextual factors within the process of inquiry and in understanding the extent to which findings can be generalized. These features sharpen the conception of scientific research quality we develop in Chapter 3. We also discuss three features of education research that are essential to understanding the nature and conduct of the professional work.
To set the stage for our discussion of the particulars of scientific education research, we reiterate our position that there are substantial similarities between inquiry in the physical and social worlds. We have argued in
previous chapters that our principles of science are common across disciplines and fields and that the accumulation of knowledge progresses in roughly the same way. Furthermore, profoundly different methods and approaches characterize each discipline and field in the physical sciences, depending on such things as the time frame, the scale of magnitude, and the complexity of the instrumentation required. The same is true in the social sciences and education, where questions ranging from individual learning of varied subject matter to fundamental social patterns to cultural norms determine the length of time, the number of people, and the kind of research instruments that are needed in conducting the studies.
Differences in the phenomena typically under investigation do distinguish the research conducted by physical and social scientists. For example, the social and cultural work of sociologists and cultural anthropologists often do not lend themselves to the controlled conditions, randomized treatments, or repeated measures that typify investigations in physics or chemistry. Phenomena such as language socialization, deviancy, the development of an idea, or the interaction of cultural tradition with educational instruction are notoriously impervious to the controls used in the systematic investigations of atoms or molecules. Unlike atoms or molecules, people grow up and change over time. The social, cultural, and economic conditions they experience evolve with history. The abstract concepts and ideas that are meaningful to them vary across time, space, and cultural tradition. These circumstances have led some social science and education researchers to investigative approaches that look distinctly different from those of physical researchers, while still aligning with the guiding principles outlined in Chapter 3.
Another area that can notably distinguish research between the social and physical sciences concerns researcher objectivity in relation to bias. In some physical and life sciences, investigators are often deliberately kept ignorant of the identity of research participants, and controls are instituted through such devices as double-blind or randomization procedures. This strategy is often used in medical trials to ensure that researchers’ perspectives are not influenced by their knowledge of which participants received which treatment, and similarly, that this knowledge does not alter the behavior of the research participants. In many areas of the social sciences, in contrast, the investigator is recognized as an “engaged participant
observer,” involved with the experience and action of those observed (Blumer, 1966; Denzin, 1978; Kelly and Lesh, 2000). In such “naturalistic research paradigms” (Moschkovich and Brenner, 2000), investigators do not seek to distance themselves from research participants, but rather to immerse themselves in the participants’ lives, with conscious attention to how the investigator affects and contributes to the research process. Such strategies were developed to allow the researcher to observe, analyze, and integrate into the research process unexpected, constantly changing, and other potentially influential aspects of what is being studied. These approaches are often particularly important in studying how changes in school subject matter or the development of new technologies can be incorporated into educational practice. In collecting and coding such qualitative data, convergence can be demonstrated with repeated instances, more than one observer, and multiple raters. Also essential to the process is the examination of competing interpretations, contrasting cases, and disconfirming evidence. Regularity in the patterns across groups and across time—rather than replication per se—is a source of generalization. The goal of such scientific methods, of course, remains the same: to identify generalized patterns.
Uses of theory also tend to distinguish work in the social and physical sciences. Theory in the physical sciences leads to predictions about things that will happen in the future. Strong theories include causal mechanisms that predict what will happen and give insights into why. Theory in the social sciences is predictive, but more often it serves to understand things that happened in the past, serving a more diagnostic or explanatory purpose. Understanding the past often enables social science researchers to explain why things happened. Though understanding the past can sometimes predict the future, it does so only in broad outline and with a lesser degree of certainty. For instance, researchers have documented the regularity of certain misconceptions and patterns of error as students learn scientific or mathematical ideas. Although one cannot predict exactly when they will occur, awareness of them permits teachers to interpret student comments more effectively and to create assessment items to test for evidence of them.
A related and final point is that the level of certainty with which research conclusions can be made is typically higher in the physical sciences than in
the social sciences. As we discuss in Chapter 3, many scientific claims have some degree of uncertainty associated with them—that is, they are probabilistic rather than deterministic. We include within our principles the idea that careful estimation and reporting of uncertainty is crucial to science. However, because theories that model social phenomena—human behavior, ideas, cultures—are not as well developed as those for some physical phenomena and because they are often out of the direct control of the researcher, results are always probabilistic and tend to be more tentative than in the physical sciences. In technical terms, this means that the “error limits” associated with scientific inferences (not unlike confidence intervals typically cited in public opinion polls) tend to be larger in social and behavioral research, often due to the “noise” caused by difficulties precisely measuring key constructs and major contextual factors. The influential role of context in many social and behavioral research inquiries is a fundamental aspect of studying humans. However, it does make replication—the key to boosting certainty in results and refining theory—more difficult and nuanced. In sum, the degree of precision associated with current social science findings tends to be lower than that in the physical and life sciences.
Although education research has its roots in the social and behavioral sciences, it is also an applied field—akin in important ways to medicine and agriculture. Some scholars have likened education research to the engineering sciences, arguing that it is an enterprise fundamentally aimed at bringing theoretical understanding to practical problem solving. Like other applied fields, education research serves two related purposes: to add to fundamental understanding of education-related phenomena and events, and to inform practical decision making. Both are worthy, both require researchers to have a keen understanding of educational practice and policy, and both can ultimately lead to improvements in practice. Education research with the sole aim of explaining, describing, or predicting closely resembles “traditional” scientific inquiry of the kind we describe in the previous chapter. Research whose direct aim is to aid educational practice, decision making, and policy in the near term also must meet scientific principles for rigor, but it has an action orientation. The dual purposes of education research suggest that there must be a balance of considerations of the factors of the validity of the knowledge claims, the credibility of the
research team, and the utility and relevance of the work to situations of educational practice.
Scientific education research, whether it is aimed primarily at uncovering new knowledge or meeting the dual goals of generating knowledge and informing practice, is influenced by the unique configuration of characteristic features of the educational enterprise.
FEATURES OF EDUCATION
Education is a complex human endeavor ultimately aimed at enhancing students’ cognitive, civic, and social learning and development. Like medicine, law, or farming, education is a craft—a practical profession requiring specialized skill. Researchers studying teachers have documented that teaching is a complex, interactive exchange as the teachers seek to engage students in learning new matieral; to relate it to their prior knowledge; to respond to the heterogeneous needs of children with varied backgrounds, interests, and ideas; and to assess the depth and endurance of student learning. Education can occur in school classrooms, private homes, museums, community centers and through information accessible on the Web. Even formal schooling varies in profound ways from community to community, and from preschoolers to adults. Its institutions are many and multilayered—elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, 2-year and vocational colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, and adult learning centers. As an institution, its clientele frequently move, for example, from one school or college to another. The variability and complexity of education is mirrored by the practice of education. In the exercise of their craft, educators draw on, and are influenced by, practical wisdom, professional relationships, and values, as well as scientifically grounded theory and fact. Indeed, it is this real world of research in education that led columnist Miller to lament, “If only education reforms came in a pill” (2001, p. A14).
The character of education not only affects the research enterprise, but also necessitates careful consideration of how the understanding or use of results can be impeded or facilitated by conditions at different levels of the system. Organizational, structural, and leadership qualities all influence how the complex education system works in practice. Results may have
“shelf lives” that vary with cultural shifts and resource changes (Cronbach, 1975).
In the section that follows we discuss some of the salient features of education and their effects on scientific research: values and politics; human volition; variability in education programs; the organization of schools; and the diversity of the many individuals involved in education.
Values and Politics
Aristotle once opined that it is impossible to talk about education apart from some conception of “the good life” (Cremin, 1990, p. 85). Indeed, education is a field in which values appropriately play a central role, because what people hope to attain in education—especially the education of children—is intimately connected with people’s views about individual human potential, their hopes and expectations of what society can become, and their ideas about how social problems can be alleviated. In this way, social ideals inevitably and properly influence the education system and in turn, the research that is carried out. More subtly, but crucially, these values also affect the choice of outcomes to study and measure, as they are proxies for the myriad goals of education: basic knowledge and skills, community service, job training, social development, and problem solving. We comment further on the implications of these disagreements about goals in discussing the role of a federal education research agency in Chapter 6.
A more global implication of the role of values in education research concerns the extent to which research in education is truly akin to an engineering science. The question of why education research has not produced the equivalent of a Salk vaccine is telling. After all, medical research is something of an engineering science in that it brings theoretical understanding in the life sciences to bear on solving the practical problems of prolonging life and reducing disease. Education research is similar, with the key difference that there is less consensus on the goal. Medical research often has clearer goals—for example, finding a cure for cancer. Because values are so deeply embedded in education in so many different ways, education researchers do not have a singular practical goal that drives their inquiry (Bruner, 1996).
Local, state, and federal politicians, teacher unions, special interest groups, higher education faculty, and other interested citizens who have a stake in education are often moving in different directions and driven by different sets of incentives. These stakeholders make decisions that influence education policy and practice, and thus have an impact on the research that attempts to model and understand it. At any given time, schools and school systems may be responding to a configuration of possibly conflicting demands from these stakeholders, while trying to serve their primary clients—children, parents, and community members. This dynamic creates a turbulent environment for research. Furthermore, political motivations can affect the uses of research; some stakeholders may have strong incentives to resist the findings or interpretations of researchers or to over-interpret the results if they indicate even modest degrees of evidentiary support.
Another potential consequence of the role of stakeholders is that education research can be interrupted by a change in policy or political support for a particular type of reform. In California, the mathematics and science standards crafted in the late 1980s—which served as important examples for the current national mathematics and science standards—were abruptly changed because of political shifts. Just as the state was gearing up its curriculum, teaching, and accountability system to implement the new standards in a systematic way, the political environment changed, and so did the standards and accountability system (Kirst and Mazzeo, 1996). Research on the reform, too, ended abruptly. Such changes occur as a result of the democratic system of educational governance in the United States, and can have practical implications for research planning (e.g., limiting opportunities to conduct long-term studies).
Education is centrally concerned with people: learners, teachers, parents, citizens, and policy makers. The volition, or will, of these individuals decreases the level of control that researchers can have over the process. For example, in some cases, people cannot be randomly assigned to treatment groups; they will not agree to let themselves or their children be “controlled” for the purposes of experimental trials. This lack of control can also cause problems of noncompliance with research protocols and
instances of missing data because, for example, parents have the interests of their individual child in mind and may have priorities and needs that conflict with those of the research process.
Human movement and change have, for example, affected efforts to study the effects of education vouchers on student achievement. Many voucher studies (Witte, 2000; Peterson, 1998; Rouse, 1997; Peterson, Howell, and Greene, 1999; Myers, Peterson, Mayer, Chou, and Howell, 2000; Peterson, Myers, and Howell, 1999)—some designed as randomized trials and some not—face challenges because significant percentages of families did not return the year after baseline data were collected, did not fill out all the questionnaire items, or did not complete the standardized tests. A study of a New York City choice program (Barnard, Frangakis, Hill, and Rubin, 2002) featured a design that anticipated these noncompliance issues, and incorporated the use of sophisticated statistical (Bayesian) modeling to estimate the “treatment” effects of the program under these conditions.
A related point is that the U.S. population is a highly mobile one, with people often moving from one geographical area to another, from one home to another, and from one job to another. And their children follow suit, moving among classrooms, schools, districts, and states. According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, 16 percent of the population changed households between March 1999 and March 2000 (Schacter, 2001). This mobility characterizes not only precollege students, but college students as well: nearly one-third of students attend at least two institutions of higher education before completing their undergraduate studies (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996). Students are quite likely to experience different curricula, different teaching methods, and different standards for performance depending on the particular classroom, school or university, district, and state. Thus, researchers engaged in longitudinal research in schools are often faced with substantial shifts in the student population—and thus their study sample—which complicates the tracking of students’ learning trajectories over time.
Variability of Educational Programs
Researchers typically must accommodate a rapidly changing reform environment that tends to promote frequent changes in the core education
programs a learner encounters. The current education reform movement can be traced back 18 years ago to the report of a Presidential commission, A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Since then, the nation has been in a constant process of reforming the schools, and there is no sign that this “tinkering towards utopia” (Tyack and Cuban, 1995) will end soon. Historically, education reform seems to be the norm, not the novelty, in U.S. education, dating back at least to the nineteenth century (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). As one reform idea replaces another, instability in curriculum, standards, and accountability mechanisms is the norm.
Even within reform movements, the state and local control of education significantly shapes the ways that instructional programs and other changes to schooling are implemented, making generalizations difficult. For example, charter schools—public schools that operate under contract with either a state agency or a local school board—take very different forms according to their states’ authorizing statutes and the particular contracts (charters) under which the schools operate (RPP International, 2000). While all charter schools are characterized by some degree of flexibility from state education statutes, their educational programming and student populations vary considerably across and within states. The statute that authorizes charter schools in the state of Minnesota, for example, specifically encourages serving children with special needs. By contrast, many (though not all) charter schools in Colorado were founded by well-to-do parents who wanted rigorous academic programs for their children. Consequently, trying to answer a seemingly straightforward question like “Are charter schools more effective in improving student achievement than traditional public schools?” is not particularly useful if one wishes to understand the impact of instructional innovation because the educational environments and programs that fall under the rubric of “charter schools” are so varied that there is no common instructional intervention to evaluate.
Evaluations of changes in curriculum are also influenced by variability in programs. The implementation of curricula is a cyclic process that is governed by a complex mix of state review, teacher input, district leadership, and public comment. Further, new initiatives often require a significant commitment of funds for professional development, which may or may not be available. High stakes accountability systems and national college
entrance exams also may complicate the evaluation of the effectiveness of curricular change. Like others we discuss in this chapter, these typical circumstances require that researchers be careful to specify caveats and conditions under which findings are produced.
Organization of Education
Formal schooling takes place in an interdependent, multilayered system. In the preK-12 system, for example, students are assigned to classes, classes are organized by grade level within a school, schools are organized into school districts, school districts may be organized within counties, and counties are subdivisions of states. In addition, within classrooms, students are often placed into different instructional groups based on instructional needs or related issues. And all are influenced by federal education policy. The implication for research is that to understand what is happening at one level, it is often necessary to understand other levels. Thus, a study of how students come to understand key themes in U.S. history, for example, may be influenced by a teacher’s approach to history instruction, the value a principal places on history within the curriculum (which influences how much time the teacher has to teach history and the child to learn it), the curriculum adopted by the district (and related decisions to implement the curriculum), and different familial and community factors (e.g., parent and community support of approach to history instruction). In subject areas such as science and mathematics, where accomplishment in later courses is heavily dependent on the quality of early learning, preK-12 school structures can be designed to either facilitate successful remediation or to systematically exclude increasing numbers of students form these courses over time. These differences demand that researchers consider the nature of the vertical organization of the system in their work.
Education researchers have long investigated the interrelationship of these various levels of the system. Statistical methods, for example, can help estimate educational effects on students’ history achievement while at the same time accounting for the effects of the multiple layers of the K-12 system (Bryk and Raudenbush, 1988). A study that examined the mechanism by which Catholic schools achieve equitable outcomes for students used such a technique (see Box 5-3).
The U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse in a number of ways, and demographic projections indicate that the trend will continue (Day, 1996). Mirroring the diversity of the broader population, education takes place in specific neighborhoods with their particular geographical, historical, social, ethnic, linguistic, economic, and cultural mixes. For example, students representing dozens of native languages may attend a single school; in some school districts students speak more than 125 languages (Crawford, 1992). This linguistic diversity that characterizes many U.S. schools illustrates the influence of diversity on research. Students from immigrant families are often defined by a characteristic they commonly share—a lack of English fluency. Scratching just below the surface, however, reveals stark differences. Schools serve students who are new immigrants—often unfamiliar with American life beyond what they might have seen in movies—as well as many Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians whose families have lived here for generations and who have varying degrees of English proficiency.
Along with linguistic diversity comes diversity in culture, religion, and academic preparation. Some students visit their home country frequently, while others have no contact with their or their parents’ birthplaces. Some immigrant students have had excellent schooling in their home countries before coming to the United States; others have had their schooling interrupted by war; and still others have never attended school. Some are illiterate in their own language, and some have languages that were only oral until recently; others come from cultures with long literary traditions. The differences between these students—their age and entry into U.S. schools, the quality of their prior schooling, their native language and the number of native languages represented in their class, their parents’ education and English language skills, and their family history and current circumstances— will affect their academic success much more than their common lack of English (Garcia and Wiese, in press). Incorporating such linguistic and sociocultural contexts into the research process is critical to understanding the ways in which these differences influence learning in diverse classrooms.
In sum, the features that shape the application of our principles of science to education research—values and politics, human volition, variability in education programs, the organization of education institutions,
and diversity—underscore the important role of context. A specific implication of the role of contextual factors in education research is that the boundaries of generalization from scientific research need to be carefully delineated. Our discussion of diversity above is illustrative: to what extent, for example, is it possible to generalize results of research on suburban middle-class children of Western European descent to inner-city, low-income, limited-English students from Central America or Southeast Asia? Naïve uses and expectations of research that do not recognize such contextual differences can lead to simplistic, uninformed, and narrow interpretations of research and indiscriminate applications. To build theory, formulate research questions, design and conduct studies, and draw conclusions, scientific education research must attend to such contextual conditions.
This attention to context also suggests that advancing understanding in complex and diverse education settings may require close coordination between researchers and practitioners, interdisciplinary work, and the interplay between varying forms of education research. It also means a far greater emphasis on taking stock of the inherent diversity of the education experience and its results for different populations of students. In short, it requires specific attention to the contexts of research more frequently and more systematically than has been the case for much of the work in education to date (National Research Council, 1999c).
FEATURES OF EDUCATION RESEARCH
In addition to the features of education that influence research, there are also aspects of education research as a field that help clarify the nature of scientific inquiry in education. A perspective of education research as an enterprise points to some of the infrastructure supports that sustain it, a topic we take up in our consideration of the federal role in supporting education research (Chapter 6). Three of these education research characteristics are noteworthy in this regard: its multidisciplinary nature, ethical considerations, and its reliance on relationships with education practitioners.
Multiple Disciplinary Perspectives
The variability and complexity of education are the grist for the academic’s disciplinary mill. Multiple scientific disciplines study education
and contribute knowledge about it. Economists study the incentive structures of schooling to understand the relationship between interventions designed to change behavior and educational outcomes. Developmental psychologists and subject-matter specialists study fundamental processes of cognition, language, and socialization. Physicists, chemists, and biologists study science curriculum, teaching, and assessment. Organizational sociologists study systems that are organized to meet education goals. Cultural anthropologists study the character and form of social interactions that characterize students’ formal and informal educational experiences. Political scientists study the implementation of large-scale institutional change, like charter schools.
The presence of many disciplinary perspectives in education research has at least three implications. First, since several disciplinary perspectives focus on different parts of the system, there are many legitimate research frameworks and methods (Howe and Eisenhart, 1990). But because many disciplines are focusing on different parts of the system, contradictory conclusions may be offered, adding fuel to the debates about both the specific topic and the value of education research. The challenge for the diverse field of education is to integrate theories and empirical findings across domains and methods. Researchers from a range of disciplines working together, therefore, can be particularly valuable. Ongoing work at the Park City Mathematics Institute (see http://www.admin.ias.edu/ma/) provides an example of the potential for interdisciplinary inquiry in education to enhance understanding and promote effective instruction. A diverse group of researchers (from mathematics education, statistics, and psychology) and practitioners (teachers and teacher educators) have joined to conduct research collaboratively on how students understand statistical concepts (e.g., distributions) in order to provide advice to curriculum developers (Jackson, 1996; Day and Kalman, 2001).
A second implication is that advances in education research depend in no small part on advances in related disciplines and fields. Work in the traditional scientific disciplines, as well as in such applied fields as public health may be necessary as infrastructure support for scientific studies in education.
Finally, this proliferation of frameworks, coupled with the sheer scope of the myriad fields that contribute to understanding in education, make
the development of professional training for education researchers particularly vexing. The breadth and depth of topical areas as well as multiple epistemological and methodological frameworks are nearly impossible to cover adequately in a single degree program. Conceptualizing how to structure the continuum of professional development for education researchers is similarly challenging, especially since there is little agreement about what scholars in education need to know and be able to do.1 These unresolved questions have contributed to the uneven preparation of education researchers.
In modern education research, researchers often engage in fieldwork in schools, and with parents, students, and teachers. The need for care and oversight when studying vulnerable populations like children sometimes entails justifiable compromises in the conduct of scientific study and the progress of the scientific enterprise more generally. Ethical issues involving the protection of human participants in research—especially children— have real consequences for the types of designs, data collection, and consequently, results that can be generated from education research.
The need to ensure ethical research conduct may weaken the strength of the research designs that can be used. For example, ethical considerations prohibit withholding education to any student (a common “control” condition in the physical sciences). In studying the effectiveness of an educational program, then, comparisons must almost always be made to standard or existing practice. In this situation, the comparative effect of a new intervention will rarely be large when compared with the standard practice. Also, in some circumstances, researchers may not hide the purposes of a study from the subjects (a common practice in double-blind trials) for ethical reasons.
Ethical issues also have implications for data collection. Parents may refuse to allow their children to participate in a study because of privacy
concerns. Such events can complicate data collection, compromise sampling procedures, and thwart opportunities to generalize. Research ethics requires investigators to design their studies to anticipate these occurrences and to understand and describe their effects on the results of the study.
We briefly consider federal requirements governing research ethics in Chapter 6, where we argue for a federal education research agency to take a leading role in facilitating ethical access to student data.
As in other applied fields—such as agriculture, health risk reduction, crime, justice, and welfare—education research relies critically on relationships between researchers and those engaged in professional practice: teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, university deans, school board members, and a host of others. The education research enterprise could not function without these relationships, and its health is correlated strongly with the extent to which these practitioners are willing to participate in or otherwise support research.
Different kinds of research require different levels of participation along a continuum ranging from weak (i.e., short, distant, one-time interaction) to strong (long-term partnership or collaboration). For example, at the weak end of the continuum are research and statistics gathering activities like the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Common Core of Data or the National Assessment of Educational Progress. At the strong end of the continuum lie school reform studies like the one carried out by Bryk and colleagues (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbrow, Rollow, and Easton, 1998) in the Chicago school system. This research is carried out in a collaboration in which district and school personnel have vested interests in the research. Collaborations across disparate parts of universities—between educators and scholars in other disciplines, for example—are another instance of strong relationships that requires careful revision to typical institutional organization. We call these strong relationships partnerships.
Partnerships between researchers and practitioners have become attractive in recent years because the site of much education research has shifted from the laboratory to schools and classrooms (Shulman, 1997). In such field-based work, collaborations with practitioners can bring a form
of intellectual capital to the research that cannot be obtained in isolation of practice. Ideally, relationships generate a bidirectional flow to the work, with the research informing practice while craft knowledge and practical wisdom enrich the research. In some cases, important research cannot be conducted without this collaboration. These partnerships are not always easily formed, and often take long periods of time to establish. But they are often essential to develop the trust that is necessary for researchers to perform their jobs adequately and to engage education professionals in a mutually enriching dialogue about the role of research in practice. A current National Research Council effort is attempting to build the capacity of infrastructure for such long-term partnerships to foster research that is useful to practice (see National Research Council, 1999d), and others have suggested that research serve as a basis for long-term communications between researchers and practitioners (Willinsky, 2001). We argue in Chapter 6 that a federal education research agency should help broker such partnerships as part of its investment in strengthening the education research infrastructure.
Another way that some field-based researchers have recently attempted to bring educational practice closer to the research process is by embedding inquiry in “sites of practice” (National Research Council, 2001a). For example, to better understand the knowledge that teachers need to teach third grade mathematics effectively, researchers have grounded their work in concrete examples from teaching practice (e.g., samples of student work solving mathematical problems). Focusing research on these representations of the process of education in practice can generate important insights about the interactive nature of teaching and learning in classrooms (Ball and Lampert, 1999). Engaging in this kind of research, of course, depends on the willingness of school-based practitioners to participate and the establishment of relationships to facilitate it.
As we argue in Chapter 2, with some exceptions, U.S. society has not developed an appetite for using education research as a tool for improving teaching, learning, and schooling (Campbell, 1969). This posture exacerbates the difficulties establishing the relationships necessary to conduct research. The problems with conducting randomized trials attest to this fact: there is little expectation that educational programs or interventions should be subjected to rigorous research (Cook 2001; Burtless, in press). In
our own work and in our colleagues’, we have found repeatedly that belief and anecdote are often the coin of the realm, and those with commercial interests are not expected by educators, policy makers or the public to use research to support what they sell. We believe that the expectation that research-based information will be available and should be part of the decision-making process needs to be cultivated both in the public and in the research community. With such expectations, it will become increasingly easy to establish the relationships—weak or strong—that are critical for conducting education research. Simply put, researchers need practitioners and practitioners need researchers. Without these relationships, a great deal of scientific research in education is likely to be piecemeal and opportunistic, and educators are unlikely to draw on scientific knowledge to improve their practices in any meaningful way.
This chapter provides a flavor for the particular character of scientific inquiry in education. We elaborate how the guiding principles and features of education are united within a variety of study designs in the next chapter, where we discuss, and provide examples of, how education researchers approach particular types of inquiries.