Keeping Up With The Dr. Joneses

Would you want to go to a doctor’s office and receive the same type of treatment that was given to patients 40 years ago?

Of course not! That’s ridiculous.

Doctors have to keep up with cutting edge techniques, and so should teachers. We shouldn’t ever settle for teachers using outdated methods from the last century.

I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this mock conversation several times before. I understand the desire to push educational practice forward, and the argument here sounds compelling, but I can’t help but find the comparison between doctors and teachers to be naïve.

First of all, medicine is a huge money-making industry. You’re not comparing apples to apples. The amount of research dollars that go into creating new drugs and new medical devices is huge, way more than the amount of money spent on educational research. And the reason is because the amount of potential profits that can be generated is even more huge. Schools do not generate billions of dollars in revenue like pharmaceutical companies do.

In 2012 alone, the top 10 pharmaceutical R&D budgets (meaning this isn’t even a complete amount) totaled over $65 billion! While those companies are swimming in cash to propel the medical profession forward, research in the social and behavioral sciences – the means of propelling the teaching profession forward – has to regularly justify its existence. Sadly, in today’s political climate, it fails.

Here’s a quote from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor:

Funds currently spent by the government on social science…would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.

Yeah, because medical research totally needs another quarter million dollars. That’s like pocket change.

And from the same article, here’s Lamar Smith criticizing the National Science Foundation’s request for a scant $259 million in 2013:

“These [Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences] funds are better spent on higher priority scientific endeavors that have demonstrated return on investment for the American taxpayer.”

As a friend of mine, an assistant professor in the learning sciences, lamented on Facebook today:

“But hey, research on how people learn, why would that be part of our national interest?”

She was specifically referring to this article on the same topic from just this week.

This isn’t to say that educational research isn’t being done. It is. It’s funding is just significantly less than the amount available for medical research. Perhaps the teaching profession would have an easier time “keeping up” with the Dr. Joneses if the resources were there to generate sufficient evidence about what works best in educating our nation’s children.

It doesn’t help that the results of the educational research that does get completed doesn’t readily trickle down to the people who need it. I know there are some teachers out there who stay up to date on current research articles, but I would hazard a guess that it is a small minority of the total teaching population.

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers had pharmaceutical sales reps, like doctors do, beating down their doors to share the latest, research-proven innovations they should be using with their patients? Oh, there are plenty of sales reps that visit schools and try to get principals and teachers to buy new products, but there is a huge difference to point out.

Medicines and medical devices have to go through rigorous approval processes before they can go to market. The companies have to conduct research to prove that they work and generally don’t harm the patients. Gosh, wouldn’t that be nice in schools.

Companies who send sales reps to schools are under no obligation to research their products. When they do research them, they can conduct the research however they’d like. There are no national guidelines requiring them to do it in a specific way. I mean, really, more often than not that research is done solely in the interest of creating graphs to insert into marketing materials. The worst part is that there is absolutely no burden on educational companies to prove that not only does their product work, but that it doesn’t harm children.

(By the way, I readily admit there are some shady things that have gone on in medical research to get a product to market. Despite that, the key difference is that there are still regulations that are in place to protect the consumer. In the realm of educational products, no such regulations exist at all to protect our children.)

So we’re left with teachers and other educators doing their best to find what works, ever seeking the elusive “best practice” – the holy grail of education, that which will finally bring teaching into the modern era and legitimize today’s teachers as practitioners of the 21st century.

“But without at least some empirical evidence, education cannot resolve competing approaches, generate cumulative knowledge, and avoid fads and personal biases.” (SERC)

Lucky us.


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