The New York Times had an excellent article Tuesday about the Department of Education’s growing support for randomized experiments evaluating evaluate educational programs. Here’s the money quote:
Most programs that had been sold as effective had no good evidence behind them. And when rigorous studies were done, as many as 90 percent of programs that seemed promising in small, unscientific studies had no effect on achievement or actually made achievement scores worse.
These results are a firm rebuke to politicians who want an education policy based on platitudes. With any luck, the rise of experimental evaluation may also straighten out the educational romanticists who believe that getting the U.S. to the top of the international rankings is just a matter of finding a breakthrough intervention — pushing the right buttons and pulling the right levers to, say, turn Detroit into Singapore.
As good as it is, though, the Times article omits a crucial fact: The Obama administration has ignored rigorous evaluations when the results are politically inconvenient.
Take Head Start. Experimental evidence has repeatedly shown that Head Start has essentially no impact on children’s cognitive or social development by the time they reach first grade. But right after last fall’s third-grade follow-up again showed no impact, the administration proposed to increase funding for Head Start, citing the “success” of the program!
The transcripts of White House press briefings show that not a single reporter asked why tax dollars would continue to be spent on an ineffective program. And even though it is the oldest and best known federal early-intervention program, Head Start is not mentioned in the Times article referenced above.
Obama has also pushed for expanding federal involvement in preschool. What the media rarely mentioned during that debate is that none of the preschool programs Obama wanted to support had been subject to experimental evaluation. Why were reporters so quiet?
Lindsey Burke and I wrote a lengthy essay about the disconnect between rhetoric and evidence in education policy. It’s great that the Times is recognizing the need for such evidence, but how about asking the Obama administration for the same thing?