In the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the phrase “scientifically based research” is mentioned 110 times. Not a typo. Evidence-based practice, a variation of the NCLB phrase, and data-driven decision-making are popular among policymakers, administrators, and researchers. What is common to all of these phrases is the idea that systematic inquiry into a question or problem–either through evaluation or research (or both) will yield solid data useful to educators in making and implementing policy.
Yet the historical record is rich in evidence that research and evaluation findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. This is not a criticism of politics or even ideology in schooling but a recognition that tax-supported public schools are political institutions where stakeholders with competing values vie for resources.
There was no research or evaluation, for example, that found establishing public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century decision-makers to import privately-funded kindergartens into public schools. Ditto for introducing desktop computers into schools a century later.
So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that what policymakers and teachers should do is pursue unrelentingly evidence-based policy-making and data-driven instruction. The strong belief persists among educators that when policy and practice are anchored in scientifically researched findings, then and only then, rational and effective policymaking and classroom teaching can occur.
As Part 1 indicated, that has hardly been the case when it comes to monies spent on charter schools and classroom technologies then and now. Why is that?
Political and practical reasons, not research and evaluation, often guide policy decisions–or as two scholars put it: “evidence-based decision-making is sometimes framed as an antidote for ideology-driven decision-making [when] people make decisions precisely by drawing on what might be considered ideology … as a fundamental part of the decision-making process.”
Politically smart state and local policymakers believe–here is where ideology enters the picture–that buying new tablets loaded with software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students will work; it is considered “best practice” because, well, “we believe in it.” The theory is that student engagement with the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved achievement. The problem, of course (you no doubt have guessed where I am going with this) — is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”
When the research pantry is nearly empty and evidence for raising student test scores or transforming teaching is sparse, how do policymakers and administrators justify buying new devices and software?
Here are three reasons that I see spurring decision-makers to allocate scarce dollars for new technologies.
First, keeping up with the rest of the changing world. Call it “modernization” or recasting schools as less like museums and more like fast-paced companies using technology in daily work. No more jokes about educators being technological slow-pokes. Use of new technologies is considered modern, being with-it, even an unadulterated “good” that all children and youth in age-graded schools should embrace.
Second, because new technologies are highly valued in the culture, school boards and their superintendents feel strong pressures to keep up with other sectors–both public and private–undergoing technological changes. If those leaders do not act, they fear that taxpayers and voters will lose confidence in public schools. And public confidence is like money in the bank since tax-supported public schools are politically and fiscally dependent on the good will of taxpayers.
And there is a less obvious third reason for school leaders to purchase new technologies: increase efficiency in testing and scoring results. Schools have to have computers because eventually U.S. students will be taking state tests online. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s recent fiasco with iPads was triggered by demands to implement the standardized testing required by adoption of the Common Core standards. Just as the move from quill pens to pencils to computer-adaptive-testing required no research studies but were done on grounds of cost-saving efficiency, so it was when the LAUSD School Board and Superintendent authorized buying iPads.
Note that the three reasons I offer are political–not in any negative sense–but ones that are practical and realistic in the world that policymakers inhabit. Research findings to support the promises that school leaders make for the “good” that high-tech purchases will achieve, are simply not there. And that pattern of pursuing innovations without much evidence or data to support the decisions that school boards and superintendents make is plain to see.