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Education Opinion

A Continued Defense of Evidence in Education Policymaking

By Guest Blogger — March 16, 2018 4 min read
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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.