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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