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.