Lessons for Educational Research from the COVID-19 Vaccines

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 130 biotech companies have launched major efforts to develop and test vaccines. Only four have been approved so far (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca). Among the others, many have outright failed, and others are considered highly unlikely. Some of the failed vaccines are small, fringe companies, but they also include some of the largest and most successful drug companies in the world: Merck (U.S.), Glaxo-Smith-Kline (U.K.), and Sanofi (France).

Kamala Harris gets her vaccine.

Photo courtesy of NIH

If no further companies succeed, the score is something like 4 successes and 126 failures.  Based on this, is the COVID vaccine a triumph of science, or a failure? Obviously, if you believe that even one of the successful programs is truly effective, you would have to agree that this is one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of medicine. In less than one year, companies were able to create, evaluate, and roll out successful vaccines, already saving hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

Meanwhile, Back in Education . . .

The example of COVID vaccines contrasts sharply with the way research findings are treated in education. As one example, Borman et al. (2003) reviewed research on 33 comprehensive school reform programs. Only three of these had solid evidence of effectiveness, according to the authors (one of these was our program, Success for All; see Cheung et al., in press). Actually, few of the programs failed; most had just not been evaluated adequately. Yet the response from government and educational leaders was “comprehensive school reform doesn’t work” rather than, “How wonderful! Let’s use the programs proven to work.” As a result, a federal program supporting comprehensive school reform was canceled, use of comprehensive school reform plummeted, and most CSR programs went out of operation (we survived, just barely, but the other two successful programs soon disappeared).

Similarly, the What Works Clearinghouse, and our Evidence for ESSA website (www.evidenceforessa.org), are often criticized because so few of the programs we review turn out to have significant positive outcomes in rigorous studies.

The reality is that in any field in which rigorous experiments are used to evaluate innovations, most of the innovations fail. Mature science-focused fields, like medicine and agriculture, expect this and honor it, because the only way to prevent failures is to do no experiments at all, or only flawed experiments. Without rigorous experiments, we would have no reliable successes.  Also, we learn from failures, as scientists are learning from the findings of the evaluations of all 130 of the COVID vaccines.

Unfortunately, education is not a mature science-focused field, and in our field, failure to show positive effects in rigorous experiments leads to cover-ups, despair, abandonment of proven and promising approaches, or abandonment of rigorous research itself. About 20 years ago, a popular federally-funded education program was found to be ineffective in a large, randomized experiment. Supporters of this program actually got Congress to enact legislation that forbade the use of randomized experiments to evaluate this program!

Research has improved in the past two decades, and acceptance of research has improved as well. Yet we are a long way from medicine, for example, which accepts both success and failure as part of a process of using science to improve health. In our field, we need to commit to broad scale, rigorous evaluations of promising approaches, wide dissemination of programs that work, and learning from experiments that do not (yet) show positive outcomes. In this way, we could achieve the astonishing gains that take place in medicine, and learn how to produce these gains even faster using all the knowledge acquired in experiments, successful or not.


Borman, G. D., Hews, G. M., Overman, L. T., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 12(2), 125-230.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T. & Slavin, R. E. (in press). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons for Educational Research from the COVID-19 Vaccines

  1. For over 15 years we utilized Success for All at our K-6 school. It was incredibly successful across the board. This research based approach blended phonics instruction with the love of reading. It required hard work and an incredible, consistent, training program that continued year after year. At that time, the trend was to place a disk in the computer and your problems will be solved.

    When the kindergarten program was developed we received a great deal of resistance from others because it reinforced sound recognition as opposed to letter names. 10 years later, reminiscing about how these 5 year olds were able to attack words still make the hair on my arms stand up.

    Thank you. Success for All allowed our youngsters to be successful.


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