Duplicitous Take on Evidence Based Research on Education

It happens in medicine. There are conditions in human health and disease that currently have no cure. It is easy then to fall victim to duplicitous claims that help convince people to try unproven methods. These claims are often touted on the internet where anyone can easily publish information, data or anecdotes. Unfortunately, the situation is far worse when it comes to education. 

Take, for example, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. This law embraces testing as the cure for all the ills plaguing public school education in the United States. Within the text of the law, the phrase "scientifically based research" is found 50 times. Yet, there is no scientific study out there that specifically pinpoints lack of accountability as the main culprit behind poor performance in US schools. On the other hand, with more than ten years of NCLB, evidence points to a lack of progress in learning outcomes suggesting the ineffectiveness of accountability as an education reform mechanism. Currently, the US is shifting into a standards driven reform. This seems to be a repeat because it is likewise difficult to find a good scientific study out there that strongly supports curriculum reform as a solution to current challenges in US public education.

The Philippines faces a similar quagmire. Republic Act No. 10533, the "Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013" makes the following claims regarding the K+12 curriculum:

The DepED shall adhere to the following standards and principles in developing the enhanced basic education curriculum: 
(a) The curriculum shall be learner-centered, inclusive and developmentally appropriate; 
(b) The curriculum shall be relevant, responsive and research-based; 
(c) The curriculum shall be culture-sensitive; 
(d) The curriculum shall be contextualized and global; 
(e) The curriculum shall use pedagogical approaches that are constructivist, inquiry-based, reflective, collaborative and integrative; 
(f) The curriculum shall adhere to the principles and framework of Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) which starts from where the learners are and from what they already knew proceeding from the known to the unknown; instructional materials and capable teachers to implement the MTB-MLE curriculum shall be available; 
(g) The curriculum shall use the spiral progression approach to ensure mastery of knowledge and skills after each level; and 
(h) The curriculum shall be flexible enough to enable and allow schools to localize, indigenize and enhance the same based on their respective educational and social contexts. The production and development of locally produced teaching materials shall be encouraged and approval of these materials shall devolve to the regional and division education units.
It uses the phrase "research based". At least, unlike the NCLB, the law in the Philippines uses this phrase only once. Browsing through the various descriptions or standards the curriculum should follow, readers should be reminded that most of these standards and approaches remain as contested issues in education research.

People can easily form an opinion on how children should be taught. Everyone seem to think that they have expertise or authority on this subject. Some may even use the phrases "research based" or "scientifically based research" simply to strengthen their arguments. Unfortunately, it goes much farther than that. Even among those who advocate research-based education reforms, there are doubts that remain regarding research.

Here is quite an entertaining infographic from Dylan Matthews of Wonkblog in the Washington Post:

You see, you can argue with research that you do not like. Of course, the best one I heard is that not everything that is correct has to be published in peer-reviewed journals. One can even go as far as accusing scientists of intellectual superiority complex. One fact, however, remains. Education reforms affect so many lives. Policies in education have long lasting effects on children. A scientist may be guilty of arrogance, but a policy maker on education imposing new standards and curriculum that are not based on evidence may be wasting taxpayer's money and harming so many children. This may actually be worse than a health practitioner trying out an unproven medication or procedure on one patient.