Does a Successful Randomized Experiment Lead to Successful Policy? Project Challenge and What Happened in Tennessee After Project STAR
32 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2018
Date Written: March 31, 2018
A growing number of policy makers request research evidence before making policy decisions. Yet the evidence, when provided, may have little impact on policy.
In this article, we revisit how Tennessee handled class size policy in 1984-93. The conventional history is an inspiring narrative of evidence-based policy. The state funded a randomized experiment (Project STAR), which showed that reducing class sizes to 15 could raise test scores. It then funded class size reduction in the poorest school districts (Project Challenge), achieving similar effects. Finally, the state reduced class sizes statewide (under the Basic Education Program).
Our revised history paints a less inspiring picture. Though Project STAR was exemplary, Project Challenge was not. Evidence from district report cards suggest that the districts targeted by Project Challenge did not reduce class sizes and did not raise test scores. After Project Challenge, Tennessee’s Basic Education Program did reduce class sizes statewide, but the reduction was token, taking average student-teacher ratios from 26 down to 25. Later other states reduced class sizes, citing evidence from Project STAR, but the reductions and contexts differed from those in Project STAR, and effects were disappointing.
If evidence is to improve social outcomes, it must be better integrated into policy decisions.
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