Using Data for Educational Policy Decisions

Source: Businessweek, Aug 2013

the U.S. Department of Education … runs a “What Works Clearinghouse,” which provides examples of “proven” techniques to improve learning outcomes in America’s schools. To be included in the clearinghouse, evidence of success must come from a randomized trial a school setting. Want to improve third graders’ reading? The site has 20 different third-grade literacy interventions, from Earobics to Spell Read, that have passed the randomized control sniff test. Implement all of the “what works” recommendations, and presumably we’d be able to ensure that every child gets a decent education.

… we should be experimenting and evaluating much more often. In some cases, it will turn out that a new policy has broadly similar effects when evaluated in many different places: Cash transfers to poor families have been evaluated in a range of different communities around the world and pretty consistently lead to better health and education outcomes for kids, for example. But for many—perhaps the majority—of policy problems, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. When an expert says, “If it worked in Cleveland, it will work here,” ask why it worked in Cleveland, and whether the conditions the same here. Then try it, and evaluate it. And then try something else. And so on.

This need for constant experimentation in policymaking means we can’t outsource innovation and testing to a small elite of PhDs like we do with drugs. Everyone engaged in making policy needs the freedom and encouragement to experiment, evaluate, and reformulate policies. Of course, that implies many policy experiments will fail. 

But politicians and bureaucrats should not be punished for trying something new, only to find it doesn’t work. The true failure is favoring principles or ideology over evidence, which leads to snake oil solutions based on nothing more than fear, ignorance, and prejudice.

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