Based upon what evidence?: The need for evidence-based practice in education

I recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. Out of an abundance of caution, this blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of Defense Education Activity, or the U.S. government.

One of the legacies of education reform is the establishment of the “gold standard” of randomized controlled styles in educational research. In the United States, this “gold standard” was set in law by the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools act (the so-called “No Child Left Behind Act,” PL 107-110, 107th Congress, 2002) although it was prominently introduced by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett (1986).

Some of the best evidence on best practices in education can be gathered from empirical fields such as psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and even economics (Whitehurst, 2002). This data can be collected and used to evaluate compare, evaluate, and monitor performance (Whitehurst, 2002).

According to Whitehurst, however, scientific evidence is not a complete end-all to educational practice. Instead, it should be combined with what Whitehurst terms “professional wisdom”. Professional wisdom is knowledge collected by local educators in regards to practice with regards to local circumstances. It also allows exploration of areas not previously covered by research. However, the local wisdom of educators cannot replace empirical practice. For example, without empirical practice, it would be difficult to know which practice might work better in a given situation. It also is a way for professionals to share knowledge. Finally, evidence based practice is a way to avoid fad, fancy, and personal bias (Whitehurst, 2002).

The relevance of empirical based practice is why the No Child Left Behind Act codified empirical evidence as a way to make decisions (Whitehurst, 2002). It would not do to make decisions based on fancy, based on evidence that reflected personal bias, or even based upon a limited local experience. In order to make decisions, especially at a national level, evidence must be free of such things. Alternatively, practices might be slanted toward a particular local practice that may not work in another context. Research bias in more local practice may also reveal researcher bias, which may show the practice to actually be false. Evidence-based research, especially double-blind studies (the gold standard in education reform) can help avoid such potential pitfalls in research. This increases the quality of the research and makes it more likely that the practice will, in fact, succeed in another context.

Biesta (2007) criticizes the idea of evidence-based practice as being non-causal and insufficient to cover what actually goes on in education. Relatedly, Biesta draws on the work of John Dewey to suggest that evidence-based strategies draw on deliberative judgments about education that may not actually achieve educationally desirable results. Finally, Biesta criticizes evidence-based strategies for focusing too much on the technical side of education instead of the cultural end of education. This, Biesta believes, is not compatible with democratic education. Biesta’s work seems to idealize a particular brand of education while promoting alternative sociological practices and educational theories. Since Biesta leans so heavily on what might be “educationally desirable results”, it is obvious that there is a bias toward particular ways of educating students. Apparently, Dewey’s models for democratic education produce, for Biesta, “educationally desirable results.” If a practice, however, does produce “educationally desirable results”, it should be able to be proved. Moreover, Biesta is contradictory on this particular point. Appealing to particular theories of education is, in fact, making deliberative judgments about educational quality. The idealized point of evidence based practices is to avoid deliberative judgment. Instead of refuting evidence based practice, Biesta’s argument comes across as more of a criticism of how evidence based practice actually plays out and an appeal to the democratic education ideas of Dewey. In terms of Biesta’s comments with regards to the cultural end of education, certain variables can tell us more about the sociological end of education. However, it is very difficult to universalize about cultural norms, which is why non-evidence based practices cannot be relied upon to produce practices. This does not necessarily mean they do not have worth, but rather that they cannot be extrapolated to the larger population.

Larry Cuban (2014, found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/10/the-problem-with-evidence-based-education-policy-the-evidence/, downloaded October 4, 2014) also opposes evidence-based practice. For Cuban, evidence-based practice is identified too strongly with political choices.  Educational reformers, especially within the political sphere, seize upon even small differences to account for a particular political agenda. Additionally, sociological elements found from more qualitative studies might be better at explaining conditions (Cuban, 2014). Cuban’s analysis does point to some issues with how evidence-based practice is utilized, but he does not necessarily refute the need for evidence-based practice. He instead points to the misuse of evidence-based practice to support particular political views. While his point with regards to qualitative research is well taken, Cuban conveniently ignores the benefits of evidence-based practice while promoting qualitative practice. He also fails to account for the downsides of evidence-based practice.

Evidence-based practices can be a significant way to improve educational practices. Unlike more qualitative accounts such as case studies and anecdotes, these studies do a better job at predicting which studies actually work. As opponents like Biesta and Cuban point out, evidence-based practice does not always work as well as it is idealized especially with regards to political decision making. Moreover, it may not account for certain sociological factors.

However, evidence-based practice does provide, in an idealized state, does offer several advantages in policy making and to local educators. The issues presented by opponents have more to do with how evidence-based practice is used in reality, the need for greater sociological context, and particular visions of education. The former two objections are issues more rooted in practice / technical issues and the latter issue is more political / theoretical. The latter issue is more political / theoretical in nature than it is evidence to actually disprove evidence-based practice.  Truth does not change just because one’s personal politics / theoretical beliefs do not align with the evidence. Evidence-based practice may need to be perfected, but it does provide an opportunity to key insights in education that can lead to better policy and better teaching.

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