Experimental research helps test and possibly provide evidence on which to base a causal relationship between factors. In the late 1940s, Ronald A. Fisher (1890–1962) of England began testing hypotheses on crops by dividing them into groups that were similar in composition and treatment to isolate certain effects on the crops. Soon he and others began refining the same principles for use in human research.
To ensure that groups are similar when testing variables, researchers began using randomization. By randomly placing subjects into groups that say, receive a treatment or receive a placebo, researchers help ensure that participants with the same features do not cluster into one group. The larger the study groups, the more likely randomization will produce groups approximately equal on relevant characteristics. Nonrandomized trials and smaller participant groups produce greater chance for bias in group formation. In education research, these experiments also involve randomly assigning participants to an experimental group and at least one control group.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 2001 and the Educational Sciences Reform Act (ERSA) of 2002 both established clear policies from the federal government concerning a preference for “scientifically based research.” A federal emphasis on the use of randomized trials in educational research is reflected in the fact that 70% of the studies funded by the Institute of Education Sciences in 2001 were to employ randomized designs.
The federal government and other sources say that the field of education lags behind other fields in use of randomized trials to determine effectiveness of methods. Critics of experimental research say that the time involved in designing, conducting, and publishing the trials makes them less effective than qualitative research. Frederick Erickson and Kris Gutierrez of the University of California, Los Angeles argued that comparing educational research to the medical failed to consider social facts, as well as possible side effects.
Evidence-based research aims to bring scientific authority to all specialties of behavioral and clinical medicine. However, the effectiveness of clinical trials can be marred by bias from financial interests and other biases, as evidenced in recent medical trials. In a 2002 Hastings Center Report, physicians Jason Klein and Albert Fleischman of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine argued that financial incentives to physicians should be limited. In 2007 many drug companies and physicians were under scrutiny for financial incentives and full disclosure of clinical trial results.
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