After Monday’s stem cell policy shift, science is back!  The President issued a memorandum to agency heads about scientific integrity, evidence and policy debates.  It’s important.  Evidence should matter.

But, as we think about our little educorner of the world it’s worth considering what this would mean for our field on a couple of levels.  For instance, right now fewer than half the states (21) match student achievement data with a unique teacher identifier.   And in some of those it’s still messy.  If we really wanted to take a more scientific approach why wouldn’t we make adopting data elements like this a condition or requirement for receiving federal education aid to help policymakers have more evidence to make policy decisions?  The stimulus Recovery Act, for example, only requires that states offer assurances (pdf) that they’re moving in this direction and “assurances” and requirements are like lightning and lightning bugs when it comes to enforcement.  Across education there are examples of where lip service is paid to evidence and science but make decisions based on ideology or stakeholder position.  Teacher credentialing leaps to mind…

It’s also worth thinking about where and when values and ideology should play a role and also how to adjudicate issues where the evidence doesn’t point overwhelming toward one policy remedy or another or where there are genuinely conflicting value judgements.  In our sector school choice is probably the best example.   Reasonable people can read the evidence and still come down in different places about the acceptable range of publicly financed choice in education.  That’s because the debate is fundamentally about competing views on the relationship of individual and state rather than the effect sizes that various studies find.   The social science research around school choice is important and helps us understand the world better but empiricism can only take us so far on some questions.

Historically, the progressive movement in this country and progressive education has found its way to trouble with an unbridled enthusiasm for the ability of science to show us the “true” path.   That’s ironic given the political fault lines in education today and that it’s frequently “reformers” who ascribe the most power to science in our contemporaneous education debates (although the ed tech and 21st Century Skills crowd certianly has its fair share of boosterism around the transformative potential of technology in teaching and learning).   Science and what it can offer is a powerful tool and a key foundational touchstone in our society but there are other values that are foundational, too, and deserve respect.

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4 Replies to “Science!”

  1. Excellent post! The education arena seems to be very resistant to utilizing science and resulting data effectively. As a former teacher with an applied math background this particularly irks me. Research tells us that small changes in class size, lets say 30 to 28 does not impact student achievement, while research also tells us that the teacher is the most important factor in improving academic achievement. Yet in California, where I reside, there is a large economic investment in incremental class size change.

  2. So, you’ll join with us to ban data from those identifiers for use in teacher evaluation, and support the termination of administrators who try to sneak that data in through the back door? (and if Klein has turned a blind eye to the misuses of data reported in Gotham Schools, you’d join the dump Klein effort? In the NYC case they are actually violating the law and its hard to endorse scientific honesty while protecting criminal activity)

    If you want teacher identifiers to be used down the road after the sceince is worked out, we have another debate for another time. If you want teacher identifiers and use the resulting data to supplement, but not drive evaluation, I’d agree. But surely you understand that no union and the vast majority of teachers have no choice but to resist efforts to devise those models until AFTER we’ve nailed down an enforcable agreement.

  3. FOUL!

    Data and evidence are only as good as the methodology designed to collect them, and can easily be manipulated to mislead the uninformed or biased listener. That’s what most “reformers” are doing now. Eduwonk, you throw around a definition of science that wouldn’t meet any science teacher’s standards. It’s no wonder science gets a bad rap.

    Those are 2 areas where blatantly vague results have been used by reformers to avoid making difficult financial and political decisions, and your intrepretation has been picked apart over and over again.

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