The Age of Evidence

In 1909, most people outside of cities had never seen an automobile. Those that existed frequently broke down, and there were few mechanics. Roads were poor, fuel was difficult to obtain, and spare parts were scarce. The automobile industry had not agreed on the best form of propulsion, so steam-powered cars, electric cars, and diesel cars shared the road with gasoline-powered cars. The high cost of cars made them a rich man’s hobby and a curiosity rather than a practical necessity for most people.

Yet despite all of these limitations, anyone with eyes to see knew that the automobile was the future.

I believe that evidence in education is at a similar point in its development. There are still not enough proven programs in all fields and grade levels. Educators are just now beginning to understand what proven programs can do for their children. Old fashioned textbooks and software lacking a scintilla of evidence still dominate the market. Many schools that do adopt proven programs may still not get promised outcomes because they shortchange professional development, planning, or other resources.

Despite all of these problems, any educator or policy maker with eyes to see knows that evidence is the future.

There are many indicators that the Age of Evidence is upon us. Here are some I’d point to.

· The ESSA evidence standards. The definitions in the ESSA law of strong, moderate, and promising levels of evidence and incentives to use programs that meet them are not yet affecting practice on a large scale, but they are certainly leading to substantial discussion about evidence among state, district, and school leaders. In the long run, this discussion may be as important as the law itself in promoting the use of evidence.

· The availability of many more proven programs. Our Evidence for ESSA website found approximately 100 K-12 reading and math programs meeting one of the top three ESSA standards. Many more are in the pipeline.

· Political support for evidence is growing and non-partisan. Note that the ESSA standards were passed with bipartisan support in a Republican Congress. This is a good indication that evidence is becoming a consensus “good government” theme, not just something that professors do.

· We’ve tried everything else. Despite their commendable support for research, both the G.W. Bush and the Obama administrations mainly focused on policies that ignored the existence of proven programs. Progress in student performance was disappointing. Perhaps next time, we’ll try using what works.

Any of these indicators could experience setbacks or reversals, but in all of modern history, it’s hard to think of cases in which, once the evidence/innovation genie is out of the bottle, it is forced back inside. Progress toward the Age of Evidence may be slower or more uneven than we’d like, but this is an idea that once planted tends to persist, and to change institutions.

If we have proven, better ways to teach reading or math or science, to increase graduation rates and college and career readiness, or to build students’ social and emotional skills and improve classroom behavior, then sooner or later policy and practice must take this evidence into account. When it does, it will kick off a virtuous cycle in which a taste for evidence among education leaders leads to substantial investments in R&D by government and the private sector. This will lead to creation and successful evaluation of better and better educational programs, which will progressively add to the taste for evidence, feeding the whole cycle.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer once said that every new idea is first ridiculed, then vehemently opposed, and then accepted as self-evident. I think we are nearing a turning point, where resistance to the idea of evidence of effectiveness as a driver in education is beginning to give way to a sense that of course any school should be using proven programs. Who would argue otherwise?

Other fields, such as medicine, agriculture, and technology, including automotive technology, long ago reached a point of no return, when innovation and evidence of effectiveness began to expand rapidly. Because education is mostly a creature of government, it has been slower to change, but change is coming. And when this point of no return arrives, we’ll never look back. As new teaching approaches, new uses of technology, new strategies for engaging students with each other, new ways of simulating scientific, mathematical, and social processes, and new ways of accommodating student differences are created, successfully evaluated, and disseminated, education will become an exciting, constantly evolving field. And no one will even remember a time when this was not the case.

In 1909, the problems of automotive engineering were daunting, but there was only one way things were going to go. True progress has no reverse gear. So it will be in education, as our Age of Evidence dawns.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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