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Evidence Based Programs Biggest Hurdles

January 9, 2015

A week ago, the NYTimes ran an article by Ron Haskins, a self-described “…policy analyst who helped House Republicans design the 1996 welfare overhaul and who later advised President George W. Bush on social policy”. Titled “Social Programs That Work”, the op ed piece extolled the virtues of the Obama administration’s efforts to use evidence to determine the effectiveness of various social programs. In the article, Haskins offered examples of popular programs whose effectiveness NOT supported by evidence (e.g. HeadStart and DARE) and several programs whose effectiveness IS supported by evidence.

I appreciate the de facto bipartisanship inherent Haskins support for a Democratic administration’s initiative, but need to point out two flaws with the evidence being collected. First, the metrics used to define “success” are standardized test scores and easily gathered objective data like drop-out rates, teen pregnancy rates, and suspension rates. As noted repeatedly in earlier blog posts, there is more to schooling than these measures. Secondly, the expansion of the successful programs will require a re-thinking of schooling and social services… a change of the dominant paradigm for schools away from the factory model. And that change is not where in sight anywhere. The best example of the need for paradigmatic change is the Success for All program:

Success for All, a comprehensive schoolwide reform program, primarily for high-poverty elementary schools, emphasizes early detection and prevention of reading problems before they become serious. Students of various ages who read at the same performance level are grouped together and receive daily, 90-minute reading classes, as well as one-on-one tutoring and cooperative learning activities.

The success of Success For All would be even more astronomical if those “students of various ages” were tested based on their marginal improvement over time instead of being measured as compared to students of the same age… but doing that would require an abandonment of the deeply-rooted practice of age-based grade levels and, more crucially, the administration of standardized tests that rank students based on comparisons with their age peers. Furthermore, implementing a school wide program would preclude the evaluation of individual teachers based on standardized test scores. Finally, organizing instruction to provide one-on-one tutoring and cooperative learning activities requires the abandonment of teacher centered programs, further eroding the ability to evaluate individual teachers based on test scores.

All of this underscores the one major error in the Obama administration’s use of evidence-based decision making: there is NO evidence that VAM works and NO evidence that the decades of standardized testing has improved opportunities for economically disadvantaged students… and yet… these practices persist… and both VAM and standardized testing reinforce the dominant paradigm where the teacher of students in an age-based grade level cohort is solely responsible for the academic performance of the child. And there is NO evidence that this is the case.


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