Power, Ideology, and the Use of Evidence: In National Politics and School Reform

November 5, 2012


On the eve of the nation’s voters going to the polls, a truth about policymakers’ use of evidence arrives in plain sight. Sure, the obscene spending from Super PACs on political ads shows how evidence can be bent into grotesque shapes to support one candidate over another. Fact-checkers have had a bumper season. But political ads are a genre that all of us can shrug and accept as part of life. Much like accepting that garbage is collected weekly.

But when I read that the U.S. Senate Republican leadership had put pressure on the independent Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan department of the U.S. Library of Congress, to withdraw an economic analysis of the top tax rates and economic growth that the CRS had published in September, well, that was taking away the fig-leaf that covers the persistent practice of decision-makers selectively choosing evidence to support their policies.

The New York Times described Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) questioning the report’s methodologies, language, and conclusions. What did the economist who did the analysis say in the report?

The report’s main point was that no correlation existed between reducing the top tax rates and spurring economic growth, particularly increasing the number of jobs. That conclusion of no association between cutting the tax rates on the wealthy and job growth struck at the heart of the GOP philosophy (and conservative ideology) that Republicans have advanced under two terms of George W. Bush and for which the current Republican candidate for President has campaigned. The Congressional Research Service has withdrawn the report.

That a national newspaper saw fit to publish such a blatant example of powerful decision-makers squelching evidence that challenged a central tenet in a blistering, hard fought campaign for the Presidency underscores how power and ideology again and again trump evidence in national politics.

Not only in national campaigns for high office but also in school politics and reform.

Consider the three-decade long, unrelenting promotion of classroom computers and online instruction. A recently mobilized corporate and civic-driven coalition chaired by two ex-state governors issued a report that touted online instruction as a way to transform teaching and learning in U.S.  schools. (p. 19 of Digital Learning Now Report FINAL lists corporate, foundation, and top policymakers who participated).

Evidence that regular instructional use of these machines will transform teaching and learning is barely visible. Furthermore, evidence of students’ academic achievement gains attributed to online instruction, laptops, and other hardware and software in schools is missing-in-action.  And the dream that school use of these machines and applications will lead to better jobs (except in programs where technical certificates can lead to work–e.g., Cisc0), well, I won’t even mention the scarcity of evidence to support that dream.

So what do these two-governors champion in their Digital Learning Commission report?

“Providing a customized, personalized education for students was a dream just a decade ago. Technology can turn that dream into reality today. The Digital Learning Council will develop the roadmap to achieve that ultimate goal.”

Sure, this is an advertisement pushing for-profit online outfits such as for-profit K12 and non-profit  projects such as the Florida Virtual School and “hybrid” schools. See here and here. These ex-governors want states to alter their policies to accommodate this “Brave New World” where students get individual lessons tailored to what they need to learn.

Question: After decades of blue-ribbon commissions issuing utopian reports promising “revolutionary” and “transformed” schools, where is the evidence that such futures are either possible or worthwhile?

Answer: When it comes to technology policy, evidence doesn’t matter.

The rational part of me still expects top decision-makers, even ex-governors, to use the best evidence available to support proposed directions. The real-world political part of me, however, recognizes that policy elites cherry-pick studies and facts to support decisions already determined. I guess I am still innocent enough to expect top decision-makers faced with an accumulation of evidence that runs counter to their advocacy of technology policies, at the very least, would pull up their socks and admit that they either goofed or would reconsider their decision. They won’t because Oops!  is taboo in policymakers’ vocabulary.

I would find the expression of honest doubts about policies derived from facts, not faith, to be both refreshing and courageous.

Don’t count on it, however, from Senator Mitch McConnell or Mitt Romney. Don’t count on it either from those ex-state governors and members who serve on the Digital Learning Commission.

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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into...