Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ethical concerns make it really, really hard to do good educational experimentation

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that Kevin Drum is banging the drum for universal pre-K, and good for him. I'm also glad to see that Drum is acknowledging that the earlier we intervene, the better. The metrics for students who start out disadvantaged are quite discouraging; typically, those who are behind grade level early stay behind throughout organized education. What Drum doesn't say, but what is glaringly obvious to me, is that parenting is the great unspoken factor in education reform. But it's a classic wag the dog situation; we lack a framework to intervene in parenting in all but the most extreme situations, so we don't talk about it in our policy debates.

Drum also calls for a lot more empirical experimentation in his post. And there, too, I'm with him in the abstract. I should point out, though, that there is already lots of educational experimentation going on. Like, lots and lots. If Drum is frustrated by the pace of change, I would point in the direction of what many tell me is the single biggest obstacle: ethical concerns. The simple dynamic is that, while standards vary depending on individual institutions, institutional review boards, and researchers, the ethical interdiction against research that might set back students relative to their peers makes a lot of controlled experimentation impossible. If you know, thanks to prior research, that certain conditions are correlated with poor educational performance, it's unethical to expose students to those conditions in a controlled experiment, even if you believe that the benefits of the research will be great in the long run. What's more, if you find in the commission of your research that one of your groups is significantly outperforming the other, many believe (including some professional groups that establish research protocols) that you have to change or end your experiment, in order to prevent leaving the underperforming group behind. And the younger the children involved, the more stringent these guidelines tend to be.

To take an extreme example, there's great debate about the degree to which a lack of exposure to a linguistically rich environment permanently disables a child's language ability. Obviously, you can't isolate a child from language in order to ascertain the degree of this sort of disadvantage; you'd be permanently disabling a living human life (or lives) in doing so. Researchers are therefore forced to rely on disparate, frequently obscure natural experiments, such as with so-called feral children. Similarly, there's a belief among some Chomskyian syntacticians that children who are not exposed to a fluently delivered or functional grammar (such as in efforts to reestablish a dead language) will spontaneously generate a grammar in order to structure the lexical information they are exposed to. Again, you can't perform an experiment to tell if this is true; you'd risk long-term harm to children.

As I said, those are extreme examples, but when I talk to my friends who do educational research on children, it's a constant frustration. They accept and support the ethical principles involved, but they feel that progress is also seriously retarded due to those principles. It's something to keep in mind when examining these issues.

9 comments:

Nick DeBoer said...

On a brighter note, I think the reform proposed by the White House to reform the Higher Education Act and the way the government spends money on colleges is significant. The current system enriches looters and scammers at both well known and shit tier for-profits. The individuals hurt most by the current system of higher education policy are the poor who see a system that rewards education, and are scammed into paying tens of thousands of dollars to DeVry or Phoenix. When they realize they are no more credentialed after graduation the unsetteling reality of nondischargeable loans is the new reality.

While the President didn't call for reform in bankruptcy law, to my dismay, the rest of the ideas seem pretty sound: http://www.kevincarey.net/blog/2013/2/13/president-obamas-bold-plan-to-reshape-american-higher-educat.html

Don O'Neill said...

What do you think of experiments like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HighScope

Brett said...

@Freddie
What's more, if you find in the commission of your research that one of your groups is significantly outperforming the other, many believe (including some professional groups that establish research protocols) that you have to change or end your experiment, in order to prevent leaving the underperforming group behind.

I understand this, but I'm not as sympathetic towards it as I am to the ethical principle that we shouldn't deliberately expose children to conditions correlated negatively to educational outcomes. You're not deliberately harming the children, and since ending the experiment early means that its results get pretty dubious in terms of validity, I'm not sure you're really harming them by leaving them with the education they would have otherwise gotten.

God knows, most of our experiments are either going to fail, or their success won't justify the expenses and difficulties.

What Drum doesn't say, but what is glaringly obvious to me, is that parenting is the great unspoken factor in education reform.

Aren't the remarks about helping at ages 1-4 more or less an admission that parenting is really important?

Freddie said...

Aren't the remarks about helping at ages 1-4 more or less an admission that parenting is really important?

Sure. But think about it: the average child is in school for, what, 6 hours a day? They are in the company of their parents, often, for the other 18, and 10 of their waking hours. Yet the casual assumption is that educational outcomes have far more to do with educators than parents.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if 4:16/4:17 was raised in a linguistically rich environment.

Nick DeBoer said...

It is probably only thinking is 1s and 0s.

Freddie said...

ugh, spam

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Could you talk a bit more about experiments that had to be ended when researchers decided one group was suffering excessively in terms of educational performance? Creating feral children to explore Chomsky's ideas of syntax is a terrifying-yet-tempting scenario, but it sounds like you've heard about a lot of more practical work that had to be terminated due to ethical concerns.

Freddie said...

I will. Let me talk to my buddies.