Note: Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, writes this guest post.
Is evidence-based policy an oxymoron? Is it possible to have evidence serve as a guide rather than merely as a justification for policy? I think there are two ways in which evidence can play a key role in school improvement.
The first is that evidence can help us identify high-leverage problems that create policy priorities. These are problems that, if solved, would reduce a large percentage of the variance between good and bad outcomes for kids. In 2004, for example, Paul Barton suggested a list of 14 factors correlated to high student achievement, including out-of-school factors such as hunger and nutrition, reading to children, and student mobility. He also listed in-school factors such as teacher quality, rigor of curriculum, and school safety. Barton noted that low-income and minority children are at a disadvantage in most of these areas.
Evidence-based policy would dictate that we concentrate on these, or other similar high-leverage conditions, to improve education–particularly for our most disadvantaged students. Imagine if instead of spending billions of dollars over the next 10 years on a thousand different efforts we concentrated policy on making sure that students master reading early, have successful transitions from middle to high school, and stay in school at least through high school graduation. After all, evidence from a 2010 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation points to the “make or break” nature of mastering reading by grade 3 for children’s future educational development; ACT provides evidence that the level of academic achievement attained by eighth-grade students “has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate than anything that happens academically in high school;” and the Everyone Graduates Center describes the devastating consequences that dropping out of high school has on both individuals and society.
Second, evidence-based policymakers can also insist that we judge proposed solutions to high-leverage problems against proof that they can get the job done. Let’s say we are talking about the goal of having all students reading by grade 3. Policymakers should not care whether it is charters, vouchers, homeschooling, non-union or unionized schools, reading programs, or professional development that achieves the desired goal. They should only care about demonstrated results. I agree with Rick Hess when he argues that, “The proper measure of whether proposals are consistent with public schooling ought not be whether power, politics, or finances shift, but whether we are doing a better job of educating all children so they master essential knowledge and skills, develop their gifts, and are prepared for the duties of citizenship.”
I was struck several years ago while reading “Polio: An American Story” how, led by science and the commitments of policy leaders, our entire nation was mobilized in a multi-decade effort to eradicate the dreaded disease. Even Lucy and Desi and other celebrities of the 1950s were engaged in the cause. Today, by combining science and policy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has extended the fight against polio around the world. Imagine if evidence-based policy could similarly mobilize our entire nation to accomplish a few critical educational outcomes: all children reading by grade 3, successful transitions to high school, and significant reductions in dropout rates. What would our education system look like then?
Education Northwest (educationnorthwest.org), a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.