Thursday, January 12, 2017

Evidence-based policy: Whish evidence?

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Knowledge Alliance focuses on the evidence-based research provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Although the report underscores the significant challenges facing state education agencies in the current policy climate, the advice provided to guide policymakers and practitioners is too thin and unsubstantiated to be of much use.

Assistant Professor Terri S. Wilson of the University of Colorado Boulder reviewed Better Evidence, Better Choices, Better Schools: State Supports for Evidence-Based School Improvement and the Every Student Succeeds Act for the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at CU Boulder’s School of Education.

The CAP report aims to provide guidance for the state and local education agencies now tasked with implementing evidence-based school improvement practices. The new ESSA provisions ask districts and schools to consider various sources of evidence, make judgments about the strength and reliability of that evidence, and use that evidence to justify their choices of interventions. The report contrasts these new standards with the scientifically based research requirements featured in previous federal legislation. It argues that the move from federal mandates to greater state and local autonomy is a positive change but also poses new challenges.

Though helpful in framing the challenges, the report’s general recommendations for implementing evidence-based reform strategies remain relatively vague, and these recommendations are grounded in neither the existing research literature nor the empirical study featured in the report. The broad idea of evidence-based policy is an easy thing to agree about, but Professor Wilson explains that the more difficult questions involve what counts as evidence and who is able (and authorized) to determine what kinds of evidence are most relevant to local contexts.

Professor Wilson concludes, therefore, that while the CAP report raises a number of important issues, it leaves these more difficult questions unexplored.

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