In a democratic context teachers decide what needs to be learned in their classes, how such experiences might contribute to sophisticated thinking necessary to democratic citizenship, how to help children learn it, and how such learning might then be assessed. In a positivistic system we know that the quality of our teaching and student learning will be tested and measured even if it is never clearly specified what exactly constitutes the purpose of testing. Even if the tests serve to fragment, narrow, deflect, and trivialize the curriculum, we still must use them because accurate scientific measurement takes precedence over curricular considerations. This positivistic obsession with measurement, exemplified by the basics talk and the discourse of top-down standards, forces us to assume for the sake of testing efficiency that there is a specific body of knowledge to be learned, and there are correct methods of teaching and learning it.
Such an assumption forces us to unquestioningly accept the validity of the specific body of knowledge to be learned and that such truth belongs in our classrooms. Teachers and educational researchers need not trouble themselves with inquiry about the constituent interests of this knowledge. Educational researchers need only concern themselves with empirical investigations of how best to teach this information. If we manipulate this variable in this specific way, do students acquire more or less of the knowledge? Thus, many would argue, educational issues in this positivistic framework are reduced to technical issues. Questions of ends or purposes are subservient to questions of means or techniques. Critical theorists have labeled this tendency 'instrumental rationality.' Advocates of critical qualitative approaches to educational research argue that the purpose of educational activity must always be an integral aspect of the research process.