Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Continued Defense of Evidence in Education Policymaking

By Guest Blogger — March 16, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week’s guest blogs feature Katharine Strunk and Josh Cowen of Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaboration (EPIC). They’ll be joined by University of Washington’s Dan Goldhaber, Brown’s Matt Kraft, USC’s Brad Marianno, and Cornell’s Michael Lovenheim throughout the week as they discuss teachers’ unions and teacher labor market reforms.

And...we are back. Our sincere thanks to those of you who have read all or any of the posts this week. And a special gratitude to the authors who have written with us this week: Dan Goldhaber, Matt Kraft, Mike Lovenheim, and Brad Marianno. We are proud to be their friends and their professional fans, and we continue to learn from each of them as we both read and join them in this important line of work.

So what does that work tell us? Instead of summarizing thousands of words from the week in a few sentences—each blog piece speaks well for itself—we want to conclude by making the case that research of this sort matters. And by that we mean not only that teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, and policies governing the teacher labor market affect American education. They do. The evidence, some of which we have seen this week, tells us that how teachers are evaluated, compensated, and assigned can affect every aspect of school-related policy. Who chooses to enter teaching, and the effects of teaching itself on learning, are the outcomes at stake.

But research on these questions is important beyond its implications for enacting or rescinding particular teacher-related policies. What empirical studies of unions, collective bargaining, teacher tenure and the like also offer is the opportunity to ground fiercely contested arguments with at least some contribution of evidence. Between the two of us, we have tackled some of the most controversial topics in public education, including not only teachers’ unions and collective bargaining, but also school choice, school takeover and turnaround, and systems of educator and school accountability. What more than ten years of study in these areas has taught us is less that the research points to one best policy solution either nationally or within a local context, but that where evidence of any kind is absent, or obscured, anecdote and ideology will steadfastly hold sway.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” We know that whether the question in education concerns teacher contracts, or school vouchers, or the right way to “grade” a public school, policymakers, educators, parents, and students themselves will ultimately base their judgment on many things. We agree with one of our fellow RHSU guest-bloggers from the past that “evidence isn’t enough.” We know further that, to some participants in education policy, relying on evidence is itself a subjective decision. If a teacher believes that the right to organize and collectively bargain amounts to a fundamental benefit of democratic citizenry, or a parent believes in an absolute right to use tax dollars to send his or her daughter to private school, studies of bargaining effects or the latest evaluation of a voucher program may seem well beside the point.

On the other hand, education policy is hardly at risk of becoming too fact-based of an endeavor any time soon. And we believe the risks of a backlash to data-driven reform would be more threatening to educational opportunity, particularly for the most disadvantaged students, than the risk of following the data where the data lead. Especially when it comes to the tough questions—those like teachers’ unions and their contracts—that can illicit the strongest ideological responses. And when those responses lead to ineffective, or outright harmful decision-making, the promise of effective public policy—a promise on which many of the poorest children in our schools depend—becomes empty at best and, at worst, another burden to bear. To the extent that facts can matter, or that supporters of a particular policy change claim that the truth is on their side, empirical evidence can be used to verify.

But to what end? Four of our admired academic colleagues recently wrote, “The call to use evidence for decisions is the right one. But we need to know how our educational decisions will affect our valued goals. Evidence is useful when it is aligned to goals.” In our new research center, the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, we work to bring evidence to state and district policymaking not for the sake of evidence itself, but to help our government partners define and ultimately meet their priorities. Some of these priorities are rife with public controversy. Some are rather mundane and technocratic. But all decisions will occur for particular reasons, whether due to politics or policy (and often both), and we view our responsibility as researchers to ensure not what those decisions will be, but that empirical evidence remains an important contribution to that decision. In the key arguments defining public education today, evidence alone cannot determine the final destination at which policymakers arrive, but our hope remains that evidence can at least guide the direction in which they head.

—Katharine Strunk (@KatharineStrunk) and Josh Cowen (@joshcowenMSU)

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP