Not much educational data is yet improving classroom instruction

A May 28, 2013 blog post from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation by Micah Sagebiel notes that after a decade of collecting and analyzing education data, since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, that classroom instruction is no better for it. So far, all this education data has mostly been used for “accountability” purposes, that is, to show how bad teachers are or how little students are learning.

The foundation argues that the data community needs to rally behind producing data that teachers will want to use. For example, daily reports that help summarize what kids have and haven’t learned and ways to tailor lessons or homework to help students learn what they don’t yet understand.

Presumably, that would be helpful. But when I think of data-driven ways to improve instruction, I think more of clinical studies. Just like academic doctors study whether it’s better to give a kid antibiotics or let an ear infection clear on its own, I’d like to see similar studies in education. I suspect, in education, that there are several good ways to teach a particular topic, such as how to do long division or how to teach Shakespeare. If I were a new teacher, I’d like to have, say, the five best ways described for me, maybe with a video example of each one. And it would be fascinating to know what kinds of student populations responded well to each of the methods.

Is anyone doing this kind of clinical trial work in education with control groups?

POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON May 31, 2013

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Andrea Fishman

Clinical trials with human control groups, are you kidding? What counts as a placebo in education? Therevis no sugar water equivalent when you’re dealing with a group of children. Do you not teach a group of children at all? Do you use methods that you know are ineffective, thereby insuring those kids lose a year? How do you decide which kids – whose kids – go in the control group? And whose kids are “experimented” on? A “clinical approach” is exactly what’s wrong with education. Struggling learners aren’t “sick” or “deficient.” They don’t need labs or interventions to “cure” them. I agree that we need case studies but not experimental ones. We need the kind of qualitative research that shows what’s happening in classrooms and schools where students and teachers live and thrive as the complex human beings they are. We need to realize that classrooms and schools are cultures, communities, in which values, attitudes, and beliefs undergird everyone’s behavior. School IS the real world, not a factory turning out a standardized product or a lab for finding the magic formula that will cure all ills. Recognizing schools’ complexity and their humanity is the first step toward both understanding problems and finding solutions.


“Is anyone doing this kind of clinical trial work in education with control groups?”

You ask a good question. There is some good work that has been done on specific issues. I’m an English teacher, and I’ve been interested in work on discussion summarized by Nystrand (see my post about it at, and in various papers about how to teach reading, like the one by Mckeown and Beck I describe here: But in general education research is very, very unsatisfying, and almost never provides a solid basis for pedagogy. Whenever people say some approach or other is “evidence-based,” doubt it. I’ve looked at explicit vocabulary instruction ( and at the new emphasis on “informational text” ( and other issues, and I have always found that whenever experts to teachers that this or that approach is solidly supported by research, they are basically lying. It’s been a real education for me…

BTW, I like the medical analogy.

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