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IRBs and Schools

Posted on December 7, 2007

David Klahr (bio) outlines some differences among public and private schools on the issue of consent.


Well, here you can put me on record saying that the latest IRB stuff just kills education research of any kind. It used to be, I would send a letter home; it would be about one paragraph. "I want to do this study. It's kids roll balls down ramps. Blah, blah, blah, and it's fine." And my IRB would approve it and 80% of parents would say, "Oh, yeah. It sounds like fun."

Now you have to write a letter that says, "All the people who work in my lab have been approved by the state, and if your child is upset at any point, you can call me or you can call some IRB person at Carnegie Mellon." So, a parent gets that letter now and they think, "What's going on here?" so they toss the letter, and our return rates for participation went from 80-90%; now it's 45 or 50%.

This is a case where some of the terrible excesses that have happened with bad research in a few places have made university IRBs very conservative and public school board IRBs extra, extra conservative.

Private schools tend to be a little more flexible about this, because they control the kids more and the parents will trust the administration more.

And if your kid goes to some very upscale, tony private school and the school head says, "I like this study," you'll say, "Well, he knows what he's doing. She knows what she's doing."

If you go to parochial schools and you can get the hierarchy to approve it, you get very high response rates, because they're even more respectful of the authority of the principal of the school in parochial schools. So we get very high return rates from parochial schools, because if Sister Mary Jones says, "This is a good study," we're in, because everybody's going to sign on.

We actually have run a lot of studies in parochial schools because, in Pittsburgh, they run from upper-middle class schools to inner-city schools with a lot of disadvantaged kids, and when we try to study disadvantaged kids in the public school system, those parents and those principals are really skeptical.

They keep saying, "Well, when are you guys going to help us at all?" and so we get really low return rates from the public school, inner-city school context. We get pretty high returns from the parochial schools. It could be idiosyncratic to Pittsburgh, but it's one of those things I never was trained to learn about and the bottom line here is, you have to learn a lot about the real world if you're doing research out in the real world, and the laboratory is not the real world.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2007 SRCD Biennial Meeting in Boston, MA.


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