Academic journal article Exceptional Children

A Tale of Two Decades: Trends in Support for Federally Funded Experimental Research in Special Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

A Tale of Two Decades: Trends in Support for Federally Funded Experimental Research in Special Education

Article excerpt

Almost 40 years ago, Campbell and Stanley (1966) wrote their seminal work, Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research. This brief monograph, which was originally a chapter in American Educational Research Association's Handbook of Research on Teaching (1963), is mainly known as a guide to common pitfalls in the design of field research that evaluates the effectiveness of a program of intervention. Yet it also presented a passionate argument for controlled research on significant topics in the real world of schools, classrooms, and other service settings. They noted, in a language quite similar to current federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind (2001):

   This chapter is committed to the experiment as
   the only means for settling disputes regarding
   educational practice, as the only way of verifying
   educational improvements, and as the only way
   of establishing a cumulative tradition in which
   improvement can be introduced without the
   danger of a faddish discard of old wisdom in
   favor of inferior novelties. (p. 2)

By experiment, they refer to what the recent report by the National Research Council (NRC, 2002) on Scientific Research in Education calls "randomized trials" and what Shadish, Cook, and Campbell (2002) refer to as "randomized experiments" (i.e., "a study in which an intervention is deliberately introduced to observe its effects" and "in which units are assigned to receive the treatment or an alternative condition by a random process such as the toss of a coin or a table of random numbers," p. 12). In other words, these are intervention studies where teachers, students, schools, or classes are randomly assigned to either an intervention group or some sort of comparison condition(s).

Campbell and Stanley (1966) argued that the social and educational programs that were beginning to emerge during the administration of Lyndon Johnson (1963-1968), such as Head Start, Title I, and Follow Through, needed evaluation using rigorous research methodologies. By creating awareness of the potential "threats to internal and external validity," and moving away from the primitive "matching designs" often used in evaluation research at that time, the authors tried to guide educational researchers away from doing highly controlled studies on topics of no particular relevance to the real world of educational practice (such as the studies of paired associate learning that were so prevalent in special education research in that era).

A second, key message of their monograph was that researchers should conduct studies on significant topics in education, even if it means giving up some of the tight control possible in laboratory research; in other words, they should consider conducting "quasi-experiments" (i.e., studies in which random assignment of students, teachers, or schools to treatment conditions is not possible). Quasi-experiments are studies where researchers "compare outcomes ... between two groups that are similar except for the causal variable (e.g., the educational intervention)" (NRC, p. 113). Quasi-experiments "attempt to approximate the underlying logic of the experiment without random assignment" (p. 112) and "attempt to ensure fair comparisons through means ... such as using statistical techniques to adjust for background variables that may account for differences in the outcomes of interest" (NRC, 2002, p. 113).

In the same era, Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968) wrote an article on designs for applied behavior analysis that fomented a vibrant stream of research in special education. These designs, usually called single-subject designs despite the fact that there are often 3 to 4 subjects, have been used across many disability categories.

In the 1990s, the field of special education witnessed yet another shift in the focus of the research being conducted. This shift was visible in the broader field of education and could be described as a move from quantitative experimental studies to use of a wide palette of research methodologies, including a broad array of qualitative research methodologies. …

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