Two Cheers for Evidence: Law, Research, and Values in Education Policymaking and Beyond
40 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2018
Date Written: March 15, 2017
The newest federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), reflects a recent turn toward basing social policy on research evidence. Proponents suggest that evidence based policymaking in education and other social policy areas can help cut through ideological debate and provide meaningful limits on the choices made by the federal executive branch, states, and localities. This Essay argues that such hopes for evidence-based policymaking are overambitious. It first analyzes the evidence provisions in ESSA and demonstrates how little they constrain policy choices. It then assesses the limits of the research base in education, showing how little agreement there is on major research findings, how difficult it is to conduct this kind of research in the first place, and how challenging it is to implement the findings that exist. The Essay concludes by arguing that a major challenge for evidence-based policymaking is the deep divide among citizens and policymakers about the underlying purpose of education and other social policies in the first instance; many important policy debates are about values and cannot be resolved by appealing to research at all. This critique of evidence-based policymaking does not suggest that research is unimportant or that facts are only in the eye of the beholder but rather that claims for what evidence-based policymaking can accomplish in education and other social policy areas should be treated skeptically.
Keywords: Education Law, Education Policy, Administrative Law, Evidence-Based Policymaking, Social Policy, Every Student Succeeds Act
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