Evidence-Based Reform Is Irreversible

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Today's blog is a celebration of a milestone, of a sort. This is my 100th blog on evidence-based research in education in the Huffington Post. If you add on blogs I used to do for Education Week, it's about 260, but 100 is a rounder number. This milestone provides an occasion to step back and reflect on where we are in evidence-based reform.

Evidence-based reform has its problems and pitfalls. It may be that Congress will abolish the Investing in Innovation (i3) program. It may be that many promising programs will turn out not to make a significant difference. It may be that pushback will increase from people who oppose evidence for any of several reasons. But in education, the evidence genie is out of the bottle, and it is never returning. I say this with confidence because I have never heard of a field that embraced evidence as a basis for policy and practice and then abandoned it. It is too powerful an idea, and at the end of the day, evidence provides information to government, educators and citizens to enable schools to use best practices to progressively improve outcomes for children. This is not, or should not be, a partisan issue. Everyone shares a concern for solid, provable outcomes. No one wants to spend money without seeing a result.

As recently as ten years ago, it was not at all clear that evidence-based reform would prevail. There were so few programs that met high or moderate standards of evidence that the What Works Clearinghouse was widely called the "Nothing Works Clearinghouse." Too few researchers were capable of carrying out sophisticated cluster randomized trials. Federal and foundation investment in R & D was insufficient. Since then, however, progress has been remarkable. Investing in Innovation (i3), the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education, and other funders have supported a great deal of development and evaluation of new programs, as well as building evaluation capacity across the country. i3 also accelerated the dissemination of proven models. Congress added a new category of allowable uses for School Improvement Grants (SIG) focused on proven, whole-school reform models. The Title II Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program now requires applicants to show evidence of effectiveness. Any of these individual developments could be reversed, but the broader movement has a momentum now that goes beyond any single program or set of programs.

For a long time, education has paid little attention to evidence. There are still far too few researchers, educators and policy-makers involved in the evidence movement. Yet there are enough people who are committed to evidence to keep the movement going through good times and bad. Opponents abound, but who wants to stand up for ignorance? I am optimistic that the evidence movement will prevail. As Winston Churchill said, "Americans will always do the right thing, after having exhausted all the other possibilities." I think we are at that point in education.