Information Age Education
   Issue Number 29
November, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

There are many different ways being tried out as people work to improve our K-12 education system. They range from top down approaches being tried by the Federal Government, to bottom up approaches being tried by individual parents, teachers, and students.

Some of these approaches are more amenable to careful research than others. For example, think about state and national standards. One can compare student outcomes for states that have different standards. However, this is not very good research. What we really need is an experimental and control group type of research, that holds constant as many other factors between the two groups as possible.

This issue of the Information Age Education Newsletter is based mainly on information provided in:

Brookings Institution (10/31/09). Don't forget curriculum. Brown Center Newsletters on Education. Retrieved 10/31/09 from

Improving Education: A Political Agenda,

For quite a few years, various politicians have been attempting to provide state and national leadership in attempts to improve our educational system. For example, President George W. Bush began his administration by calling for “real reform” in education, and President Obama has committed himself to “reform America’s public schools.”

These two administrations have drawn on the collective knowledge of a number of educational “experts” and they have come up with a number of similar approaches. For example early childhood programs receive considerable attention, as does an acknowledgment of the effects of poverty on education. The two administrations agree on increasing standards, creating more charter schools, and working to improve the preparation of preservice and inservice teachers.

There are differences. Quoting from the Brookings Institution report:

However, the two administrations diverge with respect to the place of curriculum in education reform. By curriculum I mean the content and sequence of the experiences that are intended to be delivered to students in formal course work. Curriculum includes teaching materials such as those that can be found in commercial textbooks and software applications. It also includes the pedagogy for delivering those materials when teachers receive guidance on how to teach the curriculum, or when software manages the pacing, prompts, and feedback that students receive as they engage with the materials. Of course, the same curriculum can often be delivered with different instructional strategies.

The curriculum—especially the curriculum as defined by a textbook series that a school is using—is a common focus on school improvement efforts. Over the years, there have been a number of curriculum development projects funded at a Federal Government level. Typically these are multimillion-dollar efforts that extend over a number of years. The curriculum is developed, tested, refined, tested some more, and so on. Eventually this process results in a commercially published curriculum that is marketed nationally.


How does one design and carry out research that can provide useful comparisons among various projects designed to improve education? If educating children was like raising a farm crop, it would be easy. Research and development in creating higher yielding, more disease-resistant crops has had a long and successful history. See, for example, Moreover, when researchers and developers produce a better strain of corn, wheat, or apples, the results are relatively quickly implemented by a large number of different growers.

In agriculture, there are a number of criteria that can be measured fairly accurately. One can measure the cost of fertilizer, the cost of pesticides, the amount of water needed, the cost of planting and harvesting, crop yields per acre, resistance of a crop to disease, resistance to bruising and other damage in getting a product to market, the length of the growing season, and so on.

Some farmers will value one measure more than another, so they will not all make the same decisions. For example, in an arid climate area where water is quite expensive, the amount of water needed may be a major consideration.

Now, think about the same ideas, but in terms of individual children, individual teachers, and so on. We know that each child (even identical twins) is different from each other child. We know that each teacher is unique.

There are other significant factors in education. For example, culture, religion, and family income make a difference. Thus, research in improving education faces vastly different challenges than research in agriculture or in industrial manufacturing.

The industrial manufacturing statement reminds me of the Science Channel “How its Made” program that I like to watch on television. The program shows some of the details of the process of making various products, such as air conditioners, washing machines, fire extinguishers, footballs, and tennis rackets. In all cases there is an inspection process. In some cases inspection is highly automated, and in other cases humans do individual inspections. It is common that products that do not pass inspection are discarded.

Contrast this with our education system. We cannot and do not discard children. Our education system has many factory-like characteristics, but it values every single child. “No child left behind” is a powerful statement. To the extent that our educational system has factory-like characteristics, we want a system that produces very few defective products, and that “repairs” rather than discards products that are not as good as we want them to be.

Some Educational Research Examples

Educators make use of a statistic named effect size in comparing the effects of various treatments. Quoting from the Brookings Institution document:

Effect size is a way of representing in numerical terms the strength of a relationship between an educational influence and a student outcome. For example, one could specify the strength of the relationship between parental socioeconomic status and high school graduation rates, or between attending a charter vs. a regular public school and achievement in mathematics. The more familiar test of statistical significance answers the question of whether an association is due to chance. Effect size, in contrast, addresses the strength of the association. Weak and unimportant effects can be shown to be statistically significant with a sufficiently large sample, which is why statistical significance alone is a poor guide to the educational significance of a program.

The report then goes on to analyze the effect size of various reform movements, such as charter schools, improving teacher preparation, merit pay, early childhood programs, setting higher standards, and so on. I found the information provided to be quite interesting. Thus, for example, the article provided a number of different examples of research to improve math education, and the effect sizes of various somewhat successful approaches.

The following paragraph seems particularly important to me:

A recent comparative effectiveness trial of four elementary school math curricula carried out by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the Department of Education demonstrates the power of curriculum as a policy lever for education reform. Just seven math curricula constitute 91 percent of the curricula used by K-2 educators. Should these curricula differ substantially in effectiveness, the implications for policy and practice would be significant.

The statement about “seven math curricula” is interesting. We do not have the situation of “one size fits all,” but we come close to having a situation where “seven sizes fit all.”

This type of group effect size research does not focus at the level of individual students. Rather, it takes data from group tests (in some sense, the larger the groups the better) and compares treatment (the book used) versus test scores. It is useful research, but is far distant from the idea of “No child left behind.”

The article provides a number of such research examples. The overall focus is on supporting the contention that the curriculum is a very important variable in educational reform. I think that the article makes a good case in support of this contention.

Final Remarks

However, keep in mind that we are well along toward being able to develop curriculum that is highly individualized. The Highly Interactive Intelligent Computer Assisted Learning systems that are being produced can be thought of as curriculum and delivery systems that are more individualized than a book and teacher can be when faced by a class of 25 to 35 or more individual students. See In my opinion, therein lies the future of much of our educational system

Interestingly, as more and better HIICAL becomes available, we can do both the traditional research and we can do single subject design. This type of research is quite often used in special education. It involves working with one student, and varying conditions for that student. See In essence, HIICAL will eventually become better and better at measuring how well an individual student is learning and in automatically making changes to try to improve the learning outcomes. Individual human tutors can do this—but a teacher using “the” book and faced by a large number of diverse students cannot do this very well.

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