A Dash Of Ideology Is OK

Eduwonkette reports that Russ Whitehurst, the Director of IES, remarked at AERA last week that:

“There may be a nirvana 100 years from now where we can slap policymakers into jail if they don’t have enough research to support what they are doing.”

I get it, I get frustrated with the same issue Russ raises, and it’s a funny throwaway line, but I actually wouldn’t want to live in such a place. Most of all because for all its problems a society where things are decided through the imperfect but participatory political process, hopefully at least somewhat informed by evidence and reason, has served us pretty well. But also because policymaking is the art of making the best decision you can with the imperfect information at hand and sometimes that means you just don’t have enough research but still have to make a call.

Besides, while I’m all for more data and evidence, some questions are simply ideological and we can have a richer and more productive debate about them if we just acknowledge as much. For instance, in our field, one can accept that the research indicates that students in voucher programs do, on average, a little better than similar students and their parents are a lot more happy with their schools and still believe that vouchers are not a good public policy overall because of how one views the relationship between state and schooling. Conversely, while I don’t agree with it at all, the notion that government shouldn’t be involved in education is not an illegitimate one; it’s just a different way of looking at the world.

This is also why we don’t want economists running things.

3 Replies to “A Dash Of Ideology Is OK”

  1. I don’t think it is funny line. It scares me to death and I feel it naive, laughable, and ludicrous – ain’t ever going to happen. We need to use data to make the best decisions we can (while also acknowledging the limits of science), but education – in the broadest sense – is a democratic (little d) conversation about instilling the values, knowledge, and predispositions we’d like to see in future generations. This is not a scientific endeavor, but a fluid, messy, values-laden exercise. Science and evaluation have a role, but it is supportive and not in the lead.

  2. What does this comment about economists have to do with anything? Is Whitehurst an economist? (The answer is no). Do economists advocate putting policymakers in jail who don’t have evidence to back up their decisions? (Not that I’m aware of). Please explain.

    Whitehurst’s comment is obviously a throwaway line. But Andy’s nervous reaction is illuminating–why not also hold policy makers and advocates accountable for outcomes, in the same way schools and teachers are expected to be responsible for their students life outcomes? When will Eduwonk’s paycheck rise and fall with the success or failure of the policies he advocates?

    If I were an economist, I would say that holding policy makers (or wonks) responsible for school outcomes might incentivize them to pay a little closer attention to what the research supports, and doesn’t support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.