Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

The federal education legislation popularly known as No Child Left Behind made a number of ambitious promises, such as closing the achievement gap, while lamenting the failed state of public education in the U.S. One of the most repeated requirements in NCLB to address this is the call for scientifically based research.

In a 2004 policy report for Pearson, Sasha Zucker notes, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Zucker acknowledges that the phrase itself sparked debate about what counts as “scientifically based,” but the larger significance of that phrase in the legislation raises two issues. First, the implication is that educational policy and practices have historically not been scientifically based (a claim echoed by many educators throughout the 20th century), and second, that this lack of scientifically based evidence was an essential cause of educational failure (both claims are made without evidence, it should be noted).

NCLB was implemented about two decades into the current accountability era, which began in the early 1980s under the Reagan administration and spurred by A Nation at Risk. Another decade has passed since NCLB has been the law of the land, resulting in about 30 years of evidence to assess the effectiveness of education reform driven by accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing.

So what does this scientifically based research on accountability conclude? And how does that inform the current rush to implement Common Core national standards and usher in a so-called next generation of high-stakes testing?

In a 2011 analysis of the impact of NCLB, Hout and Elliott noted NCLB placed federal accountability onto an existing state-based standards and high-stakes testing model. NCLB, then, established a framework for shifting public school accountability away from local and to federal control. But in a decade of implementation, U.S. test scores have not matched leading countries in international rankings and high school graduation rates have dropped, not improved. Hout and Elliott’s analysis challenges the effectiveness of accountability as a reform mechanism, but also questions depending on raising test scores and improving rankings as primary goals of any reform.

Representative of several similar research analyses, William Mathis, of the National Education Policy Center, detailed in 2012 that: “the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services. There is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.”

Mathis’ analysis challenges the argument that education reform should address the quality of standards instead of other issues such as equity of opportunity. Many schools, in fact, already implement challenging curriculum such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The problem has not been, then, the quality of the curriculum or the tests, but that only select students have had access to those opportunities.

The scientifically based research on accountability, then, shows that accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing does not create the sort of educational reform proponents claim. In fact, many of the most common educational reform policies currently being endorsed across the U.S. share with accountability a lack of evidence for their credibility—charter schools, value-added methods (VAM) for evaluating teachers, merit pay, Teach for America (TFA).

For example, legislation expanding charter schools ignores the evidence that public schools are suffering a rise in segregation (an evidence-based problem), and that instead of alleviating that problem, charter schools tend to increase segregation, while producing academic outcomes indistinguishable from public schools.

With the reauthorization of NCLB before Congress, we are now faced with a great irony: The call for scientifically based research to drive educational policy and practice should support a move to repeal NCLB and end the accountability era in the U.S.

Further, fulfilling that call for evidence must include moving away from commitments to charter schools, Common Core, next generation tests, TFA, merit pay, and VAM and toward addressing more clearly defined—and evidence-based—problems facing public education.

Ultimately, we have tended to fail the call for scientifically based research in education that reaches well back to the mid-20th century when English educator and former National Council of Teachers of English president Lou LaBrant lamented in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

The evidence is clear that the presence or quality of standards and high-stakes tests does not correlate positively with higher educational outcomes, and that fact is likely because public schools are struggling under the weight of a wide variety of consequences related to poverty and inequity. Our public schools too often fail to address that inequity and because of misguided reform commitments increase it.

In the coming decade, we must finally fulfill NCLB’s call for scientifically based research, starting with repealing NCLB and ending our commitment to the accountability era.


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