Research? We don’t need no stinking research!

Posting my comments to Larry Cuban in response to his post titled “Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards.”  Larry shines a spotlight on the lack of research behind the widespread adoption of Common Core.  I agree with his assessment, and offer additional perspective, in my comments below.


As someone now aboard the Common Core train, I believe the CCSS effort embodies the “bandwagon effect” at a national scale. In many ways, it parallels NCLB as a cause that at the sound bite level sounds right and just, but at the classroom, school, and district level results in distortions of staggering proportion. Sadly, such fallacies hypnotize education policymakers into institutionalizing illogic, which takes decades to reverse.

For what its worth, I find the use of “research-based” in education as more of a code word intended to signal the efficacy of a new policy, process, program, and etcetera irrespective of its applicability, reliability, or validity. Once “research-based” has been uttered, all questions or doubts about the effort must not be spoken; otherwise, whomever does so is not a team player, or worse, is an idiot. Used as such, it tends to silence dialog that could improve implementation or outcomes.

Lastly, as a former engineer, the validity of most education research seems questionable at best. While controlling for factors other than the unit of research is necessary to prove statistical reliability, the dizzying, diverse nature of classrooms defies the direct application of most research. The simplest of pedagogical, environmental, curricular, or other “research-based” adaptations consume colossal amounts of time, effort, and energy with little to no measurable results mostly because it is nigh impossible to carry out the adaptation, much less measure its results, in an effective way without introducing, intentionally or not, confounding variables that nullify the adaptation. This is not to say that education research is a waste of time, for sound methods and improvements may arise. However, their application needs to determined by a professional practitioner, and not a professional politician, political appointee, or administrator, whether experienced in a classroom or not. The circumstances of each classroom are so individualized and situational that any broad brush efforts are doomed to failure.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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9 Responses to Research? We don’t need no stinking research!

  1. Jack Dieckmann says:

    Far it be from me to defend the value of educational research, but I do like what Deborah Ball has to say about how ed research needs to dramatically shift. I found this powerpoint to be informative, for those who may be interested:

    Click to access 091707_Pitt.pdf


    • Thanks, Jack. It is informative, and I like the image depicting the multiple interactions and interfaces between and among students, teachers, content, and environment. I also appreciated getting to know Prof. Ball through her publications and videos of her teaching, as well as meeting with her as a cohort a year ago. I do wonder a bit about her emphasis in the presentation around “commonsense” versus “disciplined knowledge,” where she states:

      – “The frequent trumping of commonsense over disciplined knowledge in education policy and practice” (slide 3)
      – “Demonstrate the value of disciplined knowledge over intuition and common sense, across disciplinary boundaries and with the public” (slide 52)

      It appears (to one naive to the subtleties of ed research; namely, me) that she sees commonsense as antithetical to the development of sound education policy and practice. If that is the case, I could not disagree more. At the same time, slides do not convey messages that well as standalone entities. I would need to read a transcript of her speech to understand her points better. Nonetheless, I feel inclined to opine below.

      The example she discussed about prison programs on slides 46 and 47 seems, to this untrained eye, to highlight how commonsense is a key differentiator between successful and unsuccessful program implementation. On slide 47, she says “Program implementation consists of the interaction of a program’s rules and resources with an environment that filters, interprets, and makes use of those rules and resources in different ways,” which sounds like the application of commonsense to me. On slide 46, she says “Staff in more successful programs mediate and use programs carefully:

      • Encourage prisoners’ participation
      • Show commitment to the program
      • Tailor activities to individual prisoners
      • Refuse to left prisoners ‘drift’ ”

      This example highlights the point I made in my comment to Prof. Cuban’s post: professionals need to make decisions regarding instruction locally, i.e., in the classroom, as its dynamic, multidimensional nature requires situationally appropriate application, not that conceived in a sanitized environment.

      Education research should continue. Mandating the implementation of specific methods, standards, processes, and etcetera because they purportedly are “research-based” should stop.


      • Wing Chun Master 101 says:

        ‘Common Sense’ is a subjective notion that resonates with colloquial, or indigenious knowledge, and is formed from isloated experience. As ‘Common Sense’ is co/restructured by social; psychological and biological interaction with others, the subjective – and isolated – ‘Common Sense’ becomes the objective fact in that individual and throughout the society/culture from where the ‘Common Sense’ was formed and established as ‘Common Sense’. So, my question is: How universal is this ‘Common Sense’?


      • The applicable domain of common sense is impacted by many factors many of which are location-sensitive. This does not preclude its existence, or its use as a guiding factor in decision making. What is common sense in portions of the US will likely not be in China, or even other parts of the US.


  2. David B. Cohen says:

    You raise some good points, Dave. I agree that for all the constraints on education research, it’s still worth doing, but not worth turning into dogma. As for dogma that doesn’t even have research to back it up, nothing to add.
    I’m reminded of a few instances where common sense comes into play vis a vis research and best practices. In grad school, I read a study where a control group outperformed a treatment group in a language acquisition study. The researcher went through all sorts of contortions to explain this as a failure of the treatment group, without applying much common sense to the analysis of the control group. Unlike a control group in a huge drug study, where the patients know nothing about the drug and receive no treatment, the control group in the education study actually went through an educational experience. They had their own ways of learning and studying but their learning was never really considered in the analysis of the supposed failure of the treatment group. In another example, I did a case study in grad school where I analyzed one of my students. His success in learning English came through techniques I wouldn’t recommend for most students. An unwise teacher could try to make him change, or we could apply some common sense and say, “okay, that works for you – keep doing it.” And finally, my own tenth grade English teacher had a certain style and persona that I would have said was well-suited to the private, all boys prep school I attended. I wouldn’t have thought it would work in an inner-city middle school classroom – but it did, as I discovered when I sat in on his class at a South Central L.A. charter school a few years ago, and then talked to some of his former students. Research can suggest an approach, but he was able to make his way work.


    • Excellent points, David. Common sense, when integrated with intelligent decision making works wonders. A “teacher in the loop” will always be necessary, much like we have humans in the command, control, communications, computing, and information (C4I) networks in the government and the military.

      No amount of technological advances, educational research, or legislative mandates will replicate all of the knowledge, insight, experience, and common sense present in a professional teacher dynamically and situationally applied as needed to teach a diverse array of students day after day. Of course, technology and policy should exist to support the teacher in his/her role, not supplant them, or constrain them to illogically applied dictums.


  3. The Common Core is a set of standards. It’s rather difficult to research standards since standards don’t _do_ anything.

    The big question is…Do the standards spur organizational change. Will teachers, faced with the standard of reading and writing nonfiction text, implement nonfiction lessons or units into their classroom plans?

    To me, the issue is not curriculum (whether it be Common Core or Australian National). The issue is teacher isolationism. If there is no opportunity for teachers to build capacity in teaching new things, the new things will probably not get taught when students enter the classrooms and teachers close their doors.

    The research question should be this: Is there evidence that modifying curriculum standards increases student learning? I suspect very few university advisors would approve such research as a robust case study.


  4. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    Republishing given the recent revelations regarding the questionable validity of psychology research, and the similar challenges facing its distant cousin, education research, which this prior post addresses.


  5. Pingback: Research? We don’t need no stinking research! – mathematic singapore

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