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Read a Post for Evidence Based Education Policy: A Conversation
 
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* The dichotomy need not be that stark

Posted By: Steven Norton on March 21, 2014
 
This was an interesting Socratic-style dialog, and it raises some important issues in how we think about education policy and directions to take.

I would submit, however, that this debate - though it reflects what is currently happening around the country - is somewhat off-base. For instance, the shift to evidence-based medicine does not mean that every patient gets the same treatment. It means that the "toolkit" which physicians use is filled with various alternatives that have been shown to work in different situations. Students are no more uniform than patients, and just as medicine treats each patient individually (one hopes) and takes into account the particular details and circumstances of a human life, educational strategies are unlikely to be always "successful" or "not successful." Instead, we should be examining strategies that may work for different kinds of students, and ensure that professional educators are familiar with how to "diagnose" each student so as to use the right strategies. (For example, if a drug "cures" 60% of patients with a certain condition, and another drug cures the other 40%, we do not just choose the one with the higher success rate. We try to figure out how the two sub-populations differ, so that we can use each drug on the kinds of patient it has been shown to help.)

I acknowledge that this sounds like I'm just repeating the "individualized instruction" mantra, but to the extent that we are unable to fully individualize education, we are also doomed to have mixed results with students. It's not an either/or; it's a tradeoff along a continuum.

Finally, the quantitative/qualitative argument has been raging in the social science for decades. I suggest a truce: many important things cannot easily be quantified, and most things are quantified at the cost of losing information or subtlety. But it's not the quantification that is the main problem - its the operationalization of concepts that is the problem. Standardized tests produce a score that tells us something - but what exactly does it tell us? Lifetime earnings and similar measures start out as numbers, but it's the meaning of those numbers - the relevance to our original question - which is the hard part. Likewise, if you "know something when you see it," you ought to be able to articulate how you perceive it so that you can teach someone else to do the same. It may not be easily quantifiable, but if you can teach someone else to see what you see, then you have taken an important step in "measuring" it.

We as Americans have never been very good with shades of grey or complicated answers, and this infects our debates over education policy as well. Rather than looking for sharp distinctions and silver bullets, we ought to be sorting out better strategies from those that are less good, figuring out when some things work better than others, and using a broad range of "indicators" to help us get at the underlying qualities we truly care about.
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 The dichotomy need not be that stark by Steven Norton on March 21, 2014  * 
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