Some days, the internet gods are kind. On April 9th, I wrote,
We want talking about educational efficacy to be like talking about the efficacy of Advil for treating arthritis. But it’s closer to talking about the efficacy of various chemotherapy drugs for treating a particular cancer. And we’re really really bad at talking about that kind of efficacy. I think we have our work cut out for us if we really want to be able to talk intelligently and intelligibly about the effectiveness of any particular educational intervention.
On the very same day, the estimable Larry Cuban blogged,
So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that evidence-based policymaking and evidence-based instruction can drive teaching practice. Those doubts have grown larger when one notes what has occurred in clinical medicine with its frequent U-turns in evidence-based “best practices.” Consider, for example, how new studies have often reversed prior “evidence-based” medical procedures. *Hormone therapy for post-menopausal women to reduce heart attacks wasfound to be more harmful than no intervention at all. *Getting a PSA test to determine whether the prostate gland showed signs of cancer for men over the age of 50 was “best practice” until 2012 when advisory panels of doctors recommended that no one under 55 should be tested and those older might be tested if they had family histories of prostate cancer. And then there are new studies that recommend women to have annual mammograms, not at age 50 as recommended for decades, but at age 40. Or research syntheses (sometimes called “meta-analyses”) that showed anti-depressant pills worked no better than placebos. These large studies done with randomized clinical trials–the current gold standard for producing evidence-based medical practice–have, over time, produced reversals in practice. Such turnarounds, when popularized in the press (although media attention does not mean that practitioners actually change what they do with patients) often diminished faith in medical research leaving most of us–and I include myself–stuck as to which healthy practices we should continue and which we should drop. Should I, for example, eat butter or margarine to prevent a heart attack? In the 1980s, the answer was: Don’t eat butter, cheese, beef, and similar high-saturated fat products. Yet a recent meta-analysis of those and subsequent studies reached an opposite conclusion. Figuring out what to do is hard because I, as a researcher, teacher, and person who wants to maintain good health has to sort out what studies say and how those studies were done from what the media report, and then how all of that applies to me. Should I take a PSA test? Should I switch from margarine to butter?
He put it much better than I did. While the gains in overall modern medicine have been amazing, anybody who has had even a moderately complex health issue (like back pain, for example) has had the frustrating experience of having a billion tests, being passed from specialist to specialist, and getting no clear answers. More on this point later. Larry’s next post—actually a guest post by Francis Schrag—is an imaginary argument between an evidence-based education proponent and a skeptic. I won’t quote it here, but it is well worth reading in full. My own position is somewhere between the proponent and the skeptic, though leaning more in the direction of the proponent. I don’t think we can measure everything that’s important about education, and it’s very clear that pretending that we can has caused serious damage to our educational system. But that doesn’t mean I think we should abandon all attempts to formulate a science of education. For me, it’s all about literacy. I want to give teachers and students skills to interpret the evidence for themselves and then empower them to use their own judgment. To that end, let’s look at the other half of Larry’s April 9 post, the title of which is “What’s The Evidence on School Devices and Software Improving Student Learning?” Continue reading