History Of Educational Research Essay

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Educational research has a long and distinguished history, closely related to the evolution of the social and behavioral sciences. It also has been centrally concerned with the improvement of instructional practice and determining better means to aid learning. Research in education has thus embraced both theoretical and practical dimensions of systematic inquiry into teaching and learning. It also has been shaped by ongoing disputes about the nature of human development and the aims of education, as described in this entry.

Early Works

Inquiry into learning and education dates from ancient times, but it became a more highly organized social activity with the advent of state-sponsored mass schooling in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the earliest forms of such research in the United States were found in comparative accounts of school systems in other parts of the world, provided by traveling educators and other observers. State and federal departments of education published reports on various educational problems, as did early journals such as Henry Barnard’s American Journal of Education. More systematic forms of inquiry into education and learning appeared with the early development of the social and behavioral sciences in the closing decades of the century, particularly psychology.

Early psychological research and writing related to education focused on the learning process and child development and was associated with such influential figures as William James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey. They contributed to the growth of “child study,” a movement focusing on the observation and analysis of children’s physical and mental development and the learning process.

In the opening years of the twentieth century, yet another line of inquiry focused on measuring differences in learning, leading to the development of early mental tests. Following the ground-breaking work of French researcher Alfred Binet, such American proponents of IQ testing as Lewis Terman and Edward Thorndike contributed to the growth of standardized testing as a characteristic feature of American education.

A Scientific Approach

Testing proponents were a major element of the movement to foster “scientific” approaches to educational research across much of the twentieth century. This impulse extended from psychologists to researchers studying educational administration. The former emphasized the importance of experimental methods to determining the effects of educational “treatments” or instructional strategies. The latter utilized survey research and case study approaches to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of school systems, especially those in larger cities. Both approaches were considered scientific in the sense that they relied upon the systematic analysis of data collected under “objective” criteria. The growing use of testing in schools across the country, and survey methods to assess schools and districts, meant that thousands of students were introduced to these forms of educational research at colleges and universities each year by mid-century.

Other forms of educational research existed alongside these approaches. Inquiry regarding education in the domains of history and philosophy was conducted during the nineteenth century as well, and these fields also were widely taught in universities. John Dewey was the predominant figure in the philosophy of education until his death in 1952, and beyond. Sociological research on educational topics came into currency during the twenties and thirties with such figures as George Counts and Willard Waller providing important models.

These tendencies extended into the post–World War II era, when race emerged as a critical issue in education. Allison Davis and Kenneth Clark, influential African American researchers, helped to demonstrate the impact of educational discrimination and inequality, leading to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and subsequent efforts to desegregate schools and insure equality. The sociological tradition of educational research was reflected in the work of James Coleman, whose career spanned a wide range of topics and theoretical contributions to the field. In the domain of experimental research design and statistical methodology, such educational researchers as Donald Campbell and Julian Stanley gained worldwide renown for their technical expertise. Psychologists such as Jerome Bruner and B. F. Skinner proposed new conceptions of the learning process. The American Educational Research Association (AERA), which had been founded in the 1920s, grew to become a large, diverse organization by the end of the 1960s.

A Funded Enterprise

In the 1970s and ’80s educational research became a large-scale enterprise, drawing financial support from the federal government as well as private foundations. Much of this research was quantitative, focused on racial inequities in schooling and other problems related to social inequality. Another body of work represented the growing field of evaluation research, intended to provide comprehensive assessment of educational programs and other types of systematic interventions to change human behavior. Large scale national surveys of educational questions were undertaken with federal support.

Coleman supervised an influential study of educational inequality in 1967 that revealed the importance of such nonschool factors as parental background on the educational performance of children. Christopher Jencks and other researchers followed with additional quantitative studies of social stratification, highlighting the contributions of education to individual success. This line of inquiry was supplemented with observational studies that examined the effects of race, social class, and other factors in the experiences of teachers and students in particular schools. Case studies of desegregation plans proliferated in the wake of ongoing controversy over busing and other approaches to racial integration.

Experimental studies of particular learning strategies and instructional approaches continued apace, but a new interdisciplinary approach to studying the learning process emerged in the 1960s and ’70s in the field of cognitive science. Spearheaded by Jerome Bruner and his colleagues at Harvard, this line of inquiry embraced a wide variety of methodological traditions and disciplinary perspectives, all dedicated to better understanding how people think, acquire knowledge, and solve problems. Perhaps the most widely influential outgrowth of this was the work of Howard Gardner on “multiple intelligences,” but it has affected many other realms of educational theory and practice as well. The development of cognitive science also helped to foster a greater degree of methodological diversity in scholarship on learning.

Dueling Paradigms

Educational researchers debated the virtues of quantitative and qualitative approaches to investigation during the 1980s, a time marked by “paradigm wars” between proponents of different research traditions. Ethnographers Harry Wolcott and George Spindler were influential practitioners of observational methods, and growing numbers of students eschewed quantitative research in favor of naturalistic inquiry. Educational historians and philosophers displayed limited interest in these debates, focusing much of their attention to questions of inequality and social justice.

The American Educational Research Association continued to grow in size and complexity as it strove to embrace a widening diversity of research modalities. The association’s 1988 publication of the collection of essays titled Complementary Methods for Research in Educational Research marked an attempt to bring coherence to the field. Subsequent editions of the book have featured an ever-expanding array of approaches to investigation, making it difficult to identify a predominant tradition within the educational research community.

The closing years of the twentieth century were marked by a number of major developments. Perhaps the most striking was the Tennessee Student–Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, which randomly assigned thousands of students and teachers to different size classes to determine the effect on educational outcomes. Results from this massive experiment appeared in the early to mid-1990s, clearly demonstrating the advantages of smaller classes, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. STAR data also showed the contributions of effective teachers. These dramatic findings, along with the availability of major new national data sets on education, children, and youth, helped to spark renewed interest in quantitative research. Increasingly, however, investigators combined qualitative methods with quantitative studies, utilizing “mixed methods” to achieve greater insight into educational problems. As the century drew to a close, debates related to the dueling paradigms of earlier years subsided audibly.

Policy Debates

Educational researchers became embroiled in critical controversies over educational policy during the 1990s and beyond. One prominent issue was school choice and the impact of vouchers, which had been aggressively promoted by conservative social critics for a number of years. As school voucher experiments were conducted in Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, and other cities, researchers on either side of the issue exchanged barbed commentaries about their findings. Again, experimental studies were pointed to as the “gold standard” for evaluating the effectiveness of such approaches. Although this style of inquiry was favored by conservative proponents of choice, studies conducted in this fashion failed to provide much support for their cause. At the present time, there is little evidence, experimental or otherwise, that school choice promotes higher school achievement, but debates continue regardless.

At the start of the twenty-first century, educational research is once again at the center of national debates about educational change. Conservative proponents of reform in the federal government called for more “scientific” research on schooling, specifically citing the need for experimental and quantitative approaches to evaluation and other forms of investigation. The research community has responded by noting that “science” embraces many different traditions, including case studies, historical or documentary inquiry, discourse analysis, and ethnography.

Calls for greater attention to “applied” research have also prompted debates over the extent to which everyday problems in education and related fields can be “solved” by the application of systematic inquiry. In the last analysis, it may very well be the case that the principal function of educational research, in all of its varied forms, lies in the realm of informed reflection on major educational issues rather than the ultimate resolution of particular problems or practical dilemmas.


  1. American Educational Research Association. (1997). Complementary methods for research in education (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Author. (Original work published 1988)
  2. Green, J. L., Camilli, G., & Elmore, P. B. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of complementary methods in education research. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
  3. Lagemann, E. C. (2000). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Lagemann, E. C., & Shulman, L. S. (Eds.). (1999). Issues in education research: Problems and possibilities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Reese, W. J. (1999). What history teaches about the impact of educational research on practice. Review of Research in Education, 24, 1–19.
  6. Richardson, V. (2001). Handbook of research on teaching. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
  7. Towne, L., & Shavelson, R. J. (2003). Scientific research in education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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