Sunday, June 17, 2007

Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is everywhere, even in exercise.

But what about education? I've never heard of an educational reform that was double-blind. All reforms (whether charter schools, vouchers, raising teacher pay, reducing class size, changing curricula, or whatever) take place in public view, with the full awareness of both the teachers themselves and the students.

It's far easier for me to imagine how the placebo effect would take place in education, as opposed to medicine or exercise. In education, a reform is announced. The students and/or parents think to themselves, "This is it; this is the key thing that's going to make a difference." And they start to become more enthusiastic about learning, with the result that the kids do learn more. Or the teachers start to show more enthusiasm, to draw more of the kids' interest, and to have higher expectations.

So whenever a finding comes out that one reform or another leads to such-and-such percentage increase in educational achievement, how much of the improvement is really due to the reform and how much is due to the placebo effect? On the other hand, how long lasting would a placebo effect in education be? If it lasts a few weeks or months and then dissipates, any reform that shows a longer-lasting effect would not be as tainted.



Blogger PatHMV said...

That's been my general belief. I think that what helps kids is spending time with them, showing a personal interest, decent people interacting with them. Whether that comes from "Midnight basketball" or a plethora of other programs doesn't matter.

On a deeper note, the educational reform folks often talk about "research-based curricula." It sounds good, doesn't it? That was all the rage in my state's pre-k reforms a few years ago. Here's the question that none of the experts could easily answer: "What kind of people does the research show that this curricula will produce?" Does the research show that the curricula will produce creative kids with little practical knowledge? Scientific-minded kids? Obedient kids? Kids who have memorized a lot of facts?

If you're testing something to see if it is "effective," you've got to first decide what it's supposed to be effective AT.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Joanne Jacobs said...

It's very common for a new education program to show results for a few years. Then the principal or program leader goes on to another job, enthusiasm dims and it all falls apart.

On the other hand, research studies do define what they consider to be effectiveness, usually in terms of something that can be measured. While it's usually not possible to do a double blind study, it is possible to set up a control group. That's being done much more now than in the past.

7:04 PM  

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