"Education Research: Neither Fact Nor Science Commentary." By William L. Bainbridge and
M. Donald Thomas. The Effective School Report, Vol XX, No. 11. December 2002.


Education Research: Neither Fact Nor Science



William L. Bainbridge & M. Donald Thomas


  There is a large and growing concern about the quality of education that many of our children and young people are receiving today, and the effect that it may have on their future-and the future of our nation. In this commentary, two noted educators present a bold and straight forward view of what it will take to improve the educational opportunities for all children and young people. Whether or not you agree with all they present, you should find that the presentation will stir your emotions and bring attention to a need to educate all children--regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. --THE EDITORS


Edmund Burke stated: "[In] the flourishing state of things, there is appearance enough to excite uneasiness and apprehension. I admit there is a cankerworm in the rose." The same can be said about research in education. What is reported in lofty statistical languages often disguises the many fallacies upon which the conclusions are based. Within the flowers of education research the cankerworms are found in great abundance.

The problem is that education is a social phenomenon and not a physical or biological science. It is easier for us to understand the working of the universe than to "research" what establishes learning in the classroom, or anywhere else for that matter. Understanding what factors contribute to learning are complex, interrelated and cannot be controlled as they are in medical research. At best, educational research can produce anecdotal data, hunches, observations and guesses. But it cannot produce causal relationships.

Thus the so-called "research in effective schools" is a mish-mash of personal opinion and snake oil salesmanship. Much of it is aimed at controlling needed expenditures to provide an adequate and high quality education for all children, particularly children who live under poverty conditions. What education studies have found, if they have discovered anything, is that there is no "magic bullet," no single set of circumstances that influence student achievement, except that the quality of the teacher is the most powerful factor. The same is true in any service area: medicine, law, architecture, engineering or accounting.

In education, we are attempting to improve learning with meaningless slogans: "No child left behind," "effective schools for all," and "all children can learn." At the same time, we continue to support our schools at a financially inadequate level to educate well all the children. Mushy research is no substitute for hard money to pay for quality education personnel and appropriate social services for our children.

What we need to understand is that whatever we believe will improve learning is often limited by forces which cannot be controlled by the school: poverty, dysfunctional homes, influence of peer groups and general hostility of public policy against our children--"zero tolerance," "no social promotion" and "high stakes testing." At the same time, the achievement gap between poor and affluent children continues to widen each year.

Research That Is Meaningful

Rather than focus on education research, we should learn from studies conducted in biology and child growth and development, especially research in brain development. Therein lies our ability to have all children enter first grade "ready to learn."

Excellent advice is provided by Dr. James J. Gallager, who states:

    "One of the current hot educational issues, for example, is how we might close the achievement gap between minority and majority students that has been evident for a number of years. A large number of potential solutions have been proffered by ambitious educators and researchers who are content to ignore the fact that the basis for this gap lies only slightly in the educational process and teacher preparation and more deeply in the sociocultural background of various subgroups in our society."

In short, we must provide services to children prior to entering kindergarten or first grade.If we are serious about educating well all the children, we need to stop trying to prove that is can be done "on the cheap." Rather, we need to set up a model school, with appropriate resources and support systems that will provide a quality education for children living under poverty conditions.

Will it cost more? Yes!

Will it close the gap between rich and poor? Yes!

Will it save money in the long run? Yes!

Will it create greater "capital" for our nation? Yes!

Will it be much more effective than the coinage of slogans and

reliance on a mish-mash of education research? Absolutely!!

Blueprint For Successful Learning

What would such a school look like?

  • Children will begin at age 3 with certified teachers at a ratio of one teacher for ten children. Concentration would be on creating synaptic density by a variety of social, physical, and linguistic stimulation.
  • Children would have a wide array of sensory stimulation, especially in the formation of sounds needed to acquire the ability to read later on. Further, the school would provide experiential opportunities to develop an extensive vocabulary and recognition of environmental symbols.
  • Children will attend school for at least 210 days per year. Part of the time, parents would be required to be in school with their children. In addition, parents will be provided with high quality parent education, instructional materials and knowledge of child growth and development. They would also be taught processes by which children learn at home: conditioning, behavior contagion, and verbal verification.
  • All children will be provided take-home computers and software.
  • Food service programs will provide children with a high protein diet.
  • Children will be provided with many exploratory activities in music, art, and physical activities.
The school may wish to provide other components if needed: medical and dental examinations and/or counseling services.

This school will increase the learning capacity of all children, especially those that live in disadvantaged conditions. So why wait any longer. Letís put our money where our mouths have been for so many years--"the future of our nation depends on our children," "no child left behind," "all children can learn" and so on. If we are serious about what we say, then letís start by establishing at least one model school to show that what we say is possible when we provide adequate resources to educate well all our children. It must become, as William James stated, our moral equivalent for war!


Dr. William L. Bainbridge, currently serves as President and CEO of SchoolMatch, and as a Distinguished Research Professor at The University of Dayton. He is the former superintendent of three school districts in Ohio and Virginia, and former Assistant to the Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction. He has served as a lead consultant in SchoolMatch Audits of Educational Effectiveness in school systems in over 30 states. He was named Educator of the Year by the Ohio PTA and has served as educational consultant to over 400 corporations and hundreds of school systems. He is a Fellow of the American College of Forensic Examiners and Diplomate of the National Academy for School Executives. He has been featured on NBC's Today Show, ABC's Good Morning America, CNN, NPR, CBS radio and over 400 national and local television and radio programs. He earned his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University.

Dr. M. Donald Thomas serves as Chairman of the SchoolMatch Advisory Board. He previously served as an educational accountability advisor to the governors of South Carolina, Tennessee, and South Dakota. The former Superintendent of Schools in Salt Lake City, Utah, also was Superintendent of school systems in Illinois, New York and California. He has achieved national recognition as a school administrator, education reformer, researcher, author and speaker. The Horace Mann League honored him as "Educator of the Year" 1997. The American Association of School Administrators presented him with their Distinguished Service Award in 1987. Thomas earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois.