Can We Make a Silk Purse from a Sow's Ear?

  • Daniel J. MundfromEmail author

The Reverend Jonathan Swift (1801) is widely credited with coining the phrase “you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear” (p. 357), although Stephen Gosson appears to have made a similar statement centuries earlier in Ephemerides of Phialo in 1579: “seekinge … too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare” (Shapiro, 2006, pp. 619, #272). Regardless of origin, its general meaning implies that if something is not very good to begin with, you cannot do much of value with it. In the context here regarding statistical practices in educational research—and reshaping Swift's statement into a question: Can we make a silk purse from a sow's ear?—the implication is that research results that either come from poorly designed studies or use inappropriate techniques to analyze data, or both, have little hope of producing outcomes that will be effective in practice. Although this statement is applicable to research in virtually any context, the focus here is on educational research and its ability, or inability, to inform educational policy and practice in meaningful ways.

Educational research is not new. Educators, psychologists, evaluators, and other professionals have been studying the educational process for a century or more with the goal of improving the practice of education. The foremost international professional organization for promoting, studying, and disseminating research in education is the American Educational Research Association (AERA, n.d.); it was founded in 1916 with the goal of advancing educational research and promoting its application in practice. One would think that with all the educational research conducted year after year the quality of education seen in practice would be continuallyimproving. We would expect to see ever-increasing levels of student performance, higher test scores, better teachers, exemplary schools, and all the by-products and effects of an excellent educational system in society at large. However, one need not look very far or in much depth to conclude that such is not the case—not in the United States and not in most, if not all, other countries around the world. Recent US government legislation underscores this fact. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2002) and the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (ESRA, 2002) both speak to the need to generate better studies in education that can help to bridge the gap between educational research, policy, and practice.


Educational Research Experimental Unit Random Assignment Student Performance Educational Policy 
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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Applied Statistics & Research MethodsUniversity of Northern ColoradoGreeleyUSA

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