Tim Harford on the ‘evidence revolution’ taking place in education

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2013

Tim ‘Undercover Economist’ Harford has a terrific piece in today’s FT — An evidence revolution — highlighting the use of research to inform and improve education. He picks up on the aspect of evidence-informed policy which has always excited my liberal instincts: the way it empowers professionals at the most local level possible (in this case the classroom).

Here’s an excerpt from Tim’s piece (which just happens to include mention of the educational charity I work for, the Education Endowment Foundation):

Teachers have allowed themselves to be left behind in the evidence revolution. I sympathise with the profession which is constantly second-guessed by parents and school inspectors. Teachers have grown used to fad after fad being hurled at them from the Department for Education. But I agree with Ben Goldacre – epidemiologist and author of an excellent polemic on evidence-based education commissioned by the DfE itself – when he argues that if the teaching profession embraced the evidence-based approach, it would enhance rather than diminish its independence from government.

… evidence-based practice in medicine isn’t a case of doctors, brainwashed into believing whatever clinical trials tell them, passively awaiting instructions. It’s a two-way street, where some of the best ideas for research are suggested by practitioners, and best practice spreads sideways from clinician to clinician rather than being handed down by diktat. There is nothing fundamental about education that makes this impossible – witness the “journal clubs” in Singapore and Shanghai, where teachers discuss and evaluate the latest research. …

Teachers are better placed than anybody to generate new research questions, based on years of observation of subtleties that would escape any educational statistician. There is, at last, some institutional support: the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, for instance; or the Education Endowment Foundation, two years old this month, which is already running 50 randomised trials in schools, with a grant of £125m from the DfE.

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was never an excuse for not collecting evidence. And “trust me, I’m a teacher” is not an excuse today. But being a teacher is a superb vantage point for building an evidence-based education system. It is an opportunity that teachers need to seize.

And of course — as I’ll never tire of reminding folk — RCTs or randomised control trials (one of the core parts of evidence-based policy alongside process and qualitative evaluations) literally are a liberal idea: they’re founded on father-of-liberalism John Stuart Mill’s ‘method of difference’ through which the observed difference between two groups can be measured to identify the ‘active ingredient’ which works.

Here are five articles I’ve recently written on evidence-based policy:

If you’re interested in evidence-based policy, read this paper by Ben Goldacre now (14 March 2013)

Evidence-based policy is now official government policy. So will they actually follow the evidence? (4 March 2013)

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Evidence should be Good News for liberals (3 March 2013)

A little bit about my job. A whole lot more about the importance of evidence-based policy and RCTs. (23 November 2012)

So you like evidence-based policy? Here’s a couple of crucial things to remember… (31 October 2013)