From the time that the first parents taught their children to the present day, educational policy and practice have been based almost exclusively on tradition, lore, and expedience, and, in modern times, on politics and marketing. The role of evidence has been negligible. But evidence does exist, and there is an anemic research enterprise, which is concentrated in just a few countries, that does produce valuable evidence of many kinds on effective educational practices. This research does have a certain prestige, but in practice it tends to be heeded only when its conclusions happen to correspond with the current zeitgeist, political needs, or marketing forces. As a result, innovation and reform in education follow the pendulum progression typical of fads and fashions. Various policies and practices are in, then out, then in again, both arriving and departing for reasons that have little to do with evidence. What happens is that innovations are oversold based on flimsy evidence, fail to live up to unrealistic expectations in practice, and then abandoned, regardless of their evidence base, as educators rush to embrace new policies or practices whose main attraction is that they have not been around long enough to have failed yet.
Evidence-based reform is a movement that is intended to use high-quality evidence from rigorous experiments to guide educational policies and practices. Proponents of evidence-based reform hold that true progress will take place in education only when educators and policymakers have a broad set of programs and practices with a strong evidence of effectiveness available and when government policies support the use of well-evaluated programs as well as the development and evaluation of new, untested programs.
Evidence-based educational reform was founded based on the experience of evidence-based medicine, which utterly changed the practice of medicine and the role of research and development within a generation. No one would maintain that evidence-based medicine has prevailed in every aspect of medical practice or that problems do not exist, but the comparison with education is night and day. The pace of progress in medicine is astonishing. There are fads and fashions in medicine as well, and mistakes are made, but the overall picture is one of rapid, irreversible progress on a broad front. There are key differences between medicine and education, and in both fields there are aspects of policy and practice that will always have to be left up to practitioners’ judgment, but there are also critical areas of education that do lend themselves to evidence-based reform.
The idea of evidence-based reform is simple to grasp and almost impossible with which to argue. Use what works. How could anyone disagree with that? Yet the difficulties inherent in agreeing on what works are daunting, and there are powerful pressures to keep the system as it is. Still, other fields, such as medicine, agriculture, and technology, have instituted evidence-based practices, and they had to overcome similar pressures. There is no fundamental reason that education cannot do the same.
Dr. Robert E. Slavin