Scientifically based research needs to underpin education

December 23, 2005

Educational programs and practices that receive federal funds must be grounded in scientifically based research, mandates the landmark -- and controversial -- No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. The act was designed to raise educational standards through new requirements and incentives.

Valerie Reyna, professor of human development at Cornell University and a former federal policy-maker, supports and defends that approach in a new book, "The No Child Left Behind Legislation: Educational Research and Federal Funding" (Information Age Publishing, 2005). Reyna provides an insider's view on the key role played by scientific research in NCLB and in the reforms that have followed.

The book presents opposing views on the controversy surrounding the legislation. Reyna penned the first and last chapters, which form the cornerstones for the rest of the book. In the middle 11 chapters, such experts as G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, challenge Reyna's assertion that mandating empirically tested theories of learning will upgrade the nation's schools like no other legislation in history.

"The most important aspect of this legislation is not any specific program or policy but, rather, the wholesale embrace of the scientific method for generating knowledge that will govern educational practice in classrooms across the nation," writes Reyna, one of the highest-ranking scientists to have served in federal government and an architect of the new Institute for Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The institute was created when she was a senior research adviser to the assistant secretary for research, U.S. Department of Education, from 2001 to 2003.

"This is a revolution, and it's an effort to create more effective teaching methods to change such dismal facts as that only 32 percent of fourth-graders read at an adequate level, despite an almost doubling in federal spending on K-12 education in the past 10 years," Reyna said.

The legislation mandates that all teaching methods and programs -- from Head Start and reading interventions to after-school and drop-out prevention programs -- be based on scientifically based research that shows the method or program works.

"Just as other fields of science use the scientific method, so too should education. The mandate will hopefully lead to developing empirically tested methods that can reliably predict which instructional practices will produce which outcomes for which students," she writes. "Since few agencies and foundations support this kind of explanatory and predictive research, the new legislation, along with the Education Sciences Reform Act, provides opportunities to harness the power of science to allow every student access to the American dream."

The NCLB Act also sets deadlines for states to increase student testing, revamp accountability measures and ensure that teachers are qualified in their subject areas and requires moving children to another school if results are not achieved. The law mandates that states show annual progress in improving student reading and math proficiency while reducing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. It provides additional funding in reading programs and in before- and after-school programs, while giving states more flexibility in how they use federal funds. It is scheduled for reauthorization in 2007.

Reyna asserts that the country owes it to its children to embrace the legislation to see if it will help compensate for the social ills and disparities that currently plague American education and hold back student achievement.

"If we give up, we will never know if these factors can compensate, at least in part, for disadvantage and negative social influences," Reyna concludes. "The story of the American dream is that education can compensate for many disadvantages, and it is the personal story for many Americans, including me."

The book marks the transition of the scholarly journal, Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology, to a book series, the Psychological Perspectives on Contemporary Education Issues, edited by Jerry S. Carlson of the University of California-Riverside, and Joel R. Levin of the University of Arizona.

Cornell University

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