Education and the Replication Crisis in the 21st Century: How Simplicity, Clarity, and Priority Can Save Us

We are fond of niche words and phrases in Education.

Differentiation, data-driven decision making, student-centered learning, learning styles, and the one that sends shivers down the spines of many teachers, individualized instruction (try that with 35 students in 6 different classes). But there are hard questions that we either do not bother asking, or gloss over when asked. What do we mean by differentiation? Do learning styles matter, and if so, to what degree? Is individualized instruction possible, and if so, why bother having a curriculum? What data are we looking at, and what percentage of our time is taken up by crunching these numbers rather than preparing for a quality lesson?

Because, whether we want to admit it or not, education is vulnerable to the replication crisis, a phenomenon that casts doubt upon the inability to replicate experimental findings.

This is particularly acute in the area of social sciences, the domain from which education often draws its data, and more importantly, its conclusions. As Shravan Vasishth, a professor of psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics at the Department of Linguistics, University of Potsdam, Germany points out, “…interpreting such data requires statistical inference, and this is where experimental science has always struggled, especially in medicine and the humanities.”

In fact, according to Matthew Makel, a gifted-education research specialist at Duke University, and Jonathan Plucker, a professor of educational psychology and cognitive science at Indiana University, a scant 0.13 percent of education articles published in the field’s top 100 journals are replications of studies. Let that sink in for a moment. We are basing our pedagogical decisions, which directly approximately 4 million teachers and more than 50 million students, on unproven ideas. If this same weakness was applied to the design and construction of new bridges, disaster would be the end result! 

This is a phenomenon I witnessed firsthand over and over again as a literacy consultant. When I would ask schools to show me the curriculum and supporting materials they used to teach language arts, I noticed a disturbing pattern. The curriculum was so onerous and complex, with so many moving parts, there was no way any teacher, even a highly-effective teacher, could implement it with fidelity. Or, if they somehow managed to implement it, it was so fragmented and incoherent, the students were lost. 

Ultimately, the curriculum was a hodgepodge of a multitude of poorly-defined educational objectives that confused both teachers and students, Often, they were not really aligned to the state standards, which are typically constructed in obtuse language, or worse, in a manner inconsistent with appropriate grade-level expectations.

To make matters worse, the activities were superficial and did not provide opportunities for students to practice the core skills of literacy: deep reading, writing, and listening and speaking about meaningful, challenging, on or above-grade-level literature. So much of this nonsense is avoidable if we would use a little more common sense based on experience and solid research rather than embracing unproven, yet highly attractive theories. 

Worse still, many schools, out of desperation, resorted to test-prepping students, a practice that burns out teachers and sends a clear message to students: “You are, at the end of the day, a data point to be improved upon.” 

Ironically, it never worked to raise student achievement, but it did drive out the best teachers and convince kids that school was a pointless, meaningless endeavor that really wasn’t worth their time and effort. Of course, administrators say that this is never their intention. Maybe so, but the effect is the same nonetheless. Harvard professor Daniel Koretz sums it up this way: “Neither good intentions nor the value of well-used tests justifies continuing to ignore the absurdities and failures of the current system and the real harms it is causing.” 

And yet, year after year, school systems cling to unproven, specious research studies and their associated practices as if they were the holy grail of positive change. As educator and researcher Timothy Shanahan states, “We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements, we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.” 

But perhaps the answer is not found directly in the field of education. Jim Collins, renowned business consultant and best-selling author of the book Good to Great, warns us that the key to growth and success is not always something shiny and new, but rather a combination of “simplicity and diligence” applied in a consistent, unrelenting manner.

“Focus,” by Mike Schmoker, uses the guiding principles of simplicity, clarity, and priority to drive real, sustainable change Source:

Drawing from Collins’ work and the seminal research of education expert Michael Fullan and other heavy hitters in the fields of education and psychology, author and consultant Mike Schmoker distills educational success into three essential, uncompromising words: simplicity, clarity, and priority. Schmoker uses a combination of research, logic, and common sense to prove that without these three principles of design and action, schools are fated to make the same unproductive mistakes over and over again.

The practical lesson is that when things are not simple enough that they are not actually practical and “doable,” no one should be surprised when they don’t materialize, warns Schmoker. 

At the end of the day, contends Schmoker, we are simply doing a myriad of ineffective things, all of which sap our energy while accomplishing very little in terms of student learning and progress. And to see proof of this dynamic, all you need to do is visit a typical American school that is struggling with its students and it will be plainly evident. As Schmoker himself puts it, “The ubiquity of these poor practices is made evident by decades of classroom observation research.” 

In a parallel fashion, when goals, systems, and methodologies are lack clarity, confusion abounds, leading to repeated unproductive struggle and negativity. And, when schools fail to set realistic priorities and instead try to do everything well, the end result is frustration, and ultimately failure. As the old adage goes, “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

Isn’t it time that education recognizes they are not immune to the replication crisis? Isn’t it time to honor common sense via the principles of simplicity, clarity, and priority? These are questions that can no longer be avoided.

At, we adhere to three simple principles: truth, balance, and relatability. Our articles, podcasts, and videos strive to present content in an accurate, fair, yet compelling and timely manner. We avoid pushing personal or ideological agendas because our only agenda is creating quality content for our audience, whom we are here to serve. That is why our motto is   ”Rolling with the times, straining for the truth.” 

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