Desperate times demand desperate measures, but times are not so tough that schools need to jeopardize the integrity of education research by insisting that companies supply a profit as a precondition for engaging in control-based studies.

The worst state funding shortfalls since World War II have severely constricted school budgets from coast to coast. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and other federal mandates have placed new requirements on our schools without sufficient funding. One result (as we report on page 26) has been to force educators and their allies to become increasingly creative in seeking financial support from corporate sponsors.

A straw poll we conducted at eSchool News Online not long ago indicated that a majority of educators now are clearly uncomfortable about the lengths to which schools have been forced to go in search of corporate funding. To be sure, educators have been uncomfortable about corporate largesse ever since that first “Drink Coke” scoreboard blinked down the tally for the Home Team and the Visitors. But something new might be evolving now.

With ever-stronger bonds tethering schools to corporations, an entrepreneurial spirit appropriate to the corporate headquarters might now be infiltrating the offices of some public school administrators. Like red wine, a little such spirit probably is good for you. Too much might get you into trouble.

At recent conferences, such as the Florida Education Technology Conference (see page 30), a few education technology companies have quietly begun complaining that some school districts are demanding a profit before they’ll agree to participate in the research required by the No Child Left Behind Act. These companies understandably are reluctant to go on record with such complaints. The ability to acquire “scientifically based research” can spell the difference between success and failure of a product line.

If a math software program, for instance, or a reading solution lacks research supporting its efficacy, schools aren’t supposed to use NCLB funds to buy it. A product ineligible for federal funding is at a serious, probably fatal, competitive disadvantage. Companies therefore are quite eager to obtain the supporting research (see our Front Page story). The primary way to acquire such research is to conduct a control-based study in a school.

You conduct a benchmark test of student skills. Divide students into two groups. Apply the learning solution to one group while using traditional instruction with the other. At the end of the study, conduct another benchmark test and ascertain if the group using a company’s learning solution outperforms the control group.

A few school districts, sensing how badly some companies need such research, reportedly have begun demanding that the schools receive a handsome fee–over and above costs–before authorizing the research work. That, in my opinion, is a step too far.

It’s perfectly legitimate, not to mention prudent, for school leaders to require a company to underwrite all the costs of conducting a research program. It seems fair enough even to ask that a company donate materials used in a control-based study if the results indicate the product is effective. What’s not OK, it seems to me, is to determine who gets to conduct education research according to who will guarantee the highest profit.

Prospective research projects should be vetted on their academic merits by disinterested parties qualified to assess potential benefits–ideally to the field as a whole.

The NCLB requirement is laden with enough ethical uncertainty already–such as how to choose which kids get the supposed panacea and which the placebo. We shouldn’t add to the difficulty by casting the unseemly shadow of the profit motive over education research.

Profit is ennobling, they say, and corporations should strive to be as noble as possible, I suppose. But most schools and educators have a purpose higher than profit. So when it comes to education research, school leaders should listen to their better angels and cleave to the high road.