Why “Evidence-Based” Education Fails

How did the largest and most aggressive federal education initiative, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), garner bipartisan support under George W. Bush, and how have the central tenets of that legislation—accountability, standards, and testing—maintained and increased their value as approaches to education reform despite the tremendous evidence that they do not work?

One answer may lie in the power of claims that NCLB and the accountability paradigm are “evidence-based,” scientific, and thus objective (as objectivity has endured as a central aspect of authority in the American mind for at least a century).

Two parts of this possible answer deserve some consideration: (1) Are evidence-based scientific approaches objective, effective, or both? and (2) If so, why does science fail education reform?

Scientific Education Reform: A Historical Perspective

Before examining how science as a term and concept functions in the American mind, we must acknowledge the tendency to respond to any information without historical context. While it may be alluring to view NCLB’s call for “evidence-based” approaches to education reform as both something already proven (it was based on Bush’s education policy in Texas when he was governor and future Secretary of Education Rod Paige was his superintendent) and something “new,” or at least a departure from the oft-used criticism of public education, the “status quo,” both assumptions are misleading.

Kliebard, in his examination of education in the U.S. throughout the first half of the twentieth century, details that at least four different ideological perspectives battled for control of the American public education system, but what is most important for my discussion here is that all four competing ideologies pursued and argued for a scientific (and thus evidence-based and objective) approach to creating and maintaining an education system.

Notably John Dewey, as a leading voice of progressivism, and the efficiency educators, who pioneered and entrenched our obsession with measurement, both proclaimed science and the scientific method as essential for public schools that would serve the American people well. And herein lies a key for understanding NCLB, its power and its failure: Claims of “objective” and “scientific” always occur within contextual and cultural assumptions even as both depend on a faith in their not being contextualized to garner their power.

Again, if we return to Dewey and the efficiency educators, we note that they shared a pursuit of scientific but represent competing ideologies; what appeared scientific to Dewey didn’t appear scientific to the efficiency advocates because Dewey tended (at the risk of oversimplifying) to look at the child while the efficiency educators focused on the data.

As well, once we place NCLB in historical context, we also discover that calls for higher standards for student learning, greater and better measurement, and stronger accountability from our teachers and our schools have occurred repeatedly and persistently over the past century; in short, NCLB’s essential elements of reform are in fact nothing new—and have proven, ironically in the evidence, never to achieve the goals that the accountability paradigm promises.

Science in a Belief Culture: Reform in the Eyes of the Beholder

Howard Gardner has shown that the adolescent mind is nearly obsessed with fairness, and his work also suggests that each of us embodies the different minds we pass through in our development. In other words, I believe humans are often nearly blinded with the adolescent pursuit of fairness, to the exclusion of fairness itself. That faith in and seeking out fairness may be central to our equally blind faith in the possibility of and value in “objectivity”—even when the evidence itself reveals that objectivity is neither possible nor desirable.

Why is evidence so ineffective then?

Similar to research examined by Keohane and the central arguments offered by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, Mooney examines the evidence from psychology that reveals the power of belief to drive people to the evidence they want to see in order to confirm what they already embrace as truth and Truth:

“It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts….In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our ‘reasoning’ is a means to a predetermined end—winning our ‘case’—and is shot through with biases. They include ‘confirmation bias,’ in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and ‘disconfirmation bias,’ in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.”

Even when we claim “scientific” and “objective,” we are in fact functioning within belief paradigms and advocacy positions, thus contradicting the very paradigms we are seeking.

“Sure enough, a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs,” explains Mooney, offering the evidence we need to begin to understand why the accountability paradigm at the center of NCLB—and now Race to the Top (RttT) and even opting out of NCLB under Obama—remains both powerfully alluring to education reformers and persistently ineffective: “In other words, people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario”; acceptance or rejection of evidence results from imposing beliefs on the evidence, not drawing conclusions from the evidence.

Also problematic is that attempts to reason with or make a case using evidence proves to have the opposite impact we would assume given our professed faith in evidence-based science, as Mooney explains:

“And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.”

If we focus on the education reform debate, then, for example, when advocates for Teach for America (TfA) and KIPP charter schools (such as they are portrayed in Waiting for “Superman”) present reports from either TfA or KIPP, they are likely to find the advocacy from both as compelling—regardless of the nuance or conclusions any skeptics of TfA or KIPP may offer.

As another example, many of the most widely cited and discussed studies on charter schools are simultaneously used as evidence for those opposing and those rejecting charter schools.

In other words, when it comes to scientific evidence, the evidence shows that reform is in the eyes of the beholder.

Why Evidence-Based Education Fails

Let’s return to the questions I posed in the opening: (1) Are evidence-based scientific approaches objective, effective, or both? and (2) If so, why does science fail education reform?

To answer the first question, we have to perform some mental gymnastics that fly in the face of what I have discussed above: Many people will never consider the answer if it pushes against what they already believe. And since I have made the case that the American mind has already fully embraced the power and possibility of objectivity, to make a case against objectivity is likely futile.

But that is the answer to question one.

Evidence and the scientific method are both powerful, but to suggest that they are “objective” or that we can somehow make them objective is deceiving and ultimately corrosive to the possibility of both. The central failure of framing human behaviors as “objective” is assuming that the human element is something to be avoided and something that can be avoided. I find the first premise distasteful and filled with self-loathing (our humanity is something to be treasured, not rejected), and I find the second premise a strategy of those in power to maintain their power.

In short, the aura of “objectivity” is always how the evidence matches the cultural norms of any people, and cultural norms are the paradigms reflected in and perpetuated by those in power. The powerful achieved their power within the norms they believe are “right” and thus feel compelled to perpetuate them both to maintain their status as winners and to confirm their deserving (or having earned) their status (and although rarely stated, to confirm that the losers deserve to be losers).

And now question two: Scientific education reform couched as evidence-based initiatives has always and will always fail education unless we re-imagine both “scientific” and how we respond to evidence.

First, we have historically and currently failed to start with both clearly examined and defined problems and goals in education. Again, as I noted above about Dewey as his progressivism contrasted the efficiency educators, if we shift the problems and goals, the evidence suggests different outcomes. Evidence never is and never can be decontextualized, and that pursuit is what is failing the value of science and education in school reform.

It isn’t that data do not matter; it is how careful and transparent we are being with that data in the context of problems and goals for the solutions.

Next, then, after we establish the problem to be solved (How well are students learning in our schools and what do we mean by “learning”?) and the goals we hope to attain (Is public education intended to fuel our workforce or support our democratic ideals?), we must examine ways to seek the goal of “objectivity” (truth and Truth we can depend on for the good of all without the oppressive nature inherent in subjectivity in the hands of a powerful elite) while rejecting the traditional view of “objectivity” that is not supported by the evidence of human history.

Education Reform in the Twitter Era: Clustering Belief as Fact

NCLB is the logical extension of the accountability era begun in the early 1980s by a deceptive report, A Nation at Risk, that simply packaged Reagan-era ideology as science to tell the America people what they already believed: U.S. public schools were failing and as a result so was the U.S. internationally. Politicians seized on this moment and turned popular belief into political capital.

We now sit a decade into NCLB and three decades removed from A Nation at Risk—and no wiser that at any point in the past century in terms of what our schools should be accomplishing, what our schools are accomplishing, and how all that fits into the wider social and political debates. As the evidence shows, we are amazingly like Reagan as a Teflon people to whom facts don’t stick. Instead, we impose our will on the world.

One final point offered by Mooney should give us pause as we seek ways to evaluate our students, teachers, and schools as the evidence we need to reform our education system:

“Okay, so people gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select sources that deliver it. Same as it ever was, right? Maybe, but the problem is arguably growing more acute, given the way we now consume information—through the Facebook links of friends, or tweets that lack nuance or context, or ‘narrowcast’ and often highly ideological media that have relatively small, like-minded audiences. Those basic human survival skills of ours, says Michigan’s Arthur Lupia, are ‘not well-adapted to our information age.’”

Social media and instant information may be the logical extension of how humans evolve as processors of data—both maximizing our impressive human ability to think and our fatal flaws to use that evidence to reinforce our beliefs, regardless of what that evidence reveals.

Universal public education—like the allure of “objectivity,” “science,” and “evidence”—holds either certain failure or unimaginable promise, depending on our human ability to recognize context and nuance.

Ironically, despite the warning of Mooney above, I have seen a message begin to rise within the twitter and blog world, such as the work of Bruce Baker and Matthew Di Carlo, both of whom use their blogs and twitter to caution against snap judgments about data and to emphasize the complexity of data in the face of education reform.

Evidence and the careful attention to detail inherent in the scientific process do matter, but as Mooney cautions: “In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

Instead of masking poses of objectivity, culturally, politically, and educationally, we need to be transparent with our contexts, as Kincheloe explains, by offering a critical pose that is simultaneously transparent and self-conscious:

“[P]roponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive….Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves….Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

In the comments above, Kincehloe’s explanation about critical teachers offers the same possibility for critical researchers and a critical public.

NCLB, RttT, and opting out of NCLB are then ample evidence that we are failing the possibility of scientific and evidence-based education and education reform. If we find a way as political leaders and as a public to fully recognize our humanity instead of seeking to decontextualize the evidence from the exact circumstances we hope to improve, we will likely discover the inevitable intersection of science, humanity, and democracy that has been facing us all along.

Evidence-based education reform fails because we refuse to start with the problems and we fail to acknowledge the goals we are seeking. Public education is not suffering a lack of standards, testing, and accountability; thus, we are wasting valuable time and energy and proving Mooney correct: “All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations.”

Education reform is one such situation.


Keohane, J. (2010, July 11). How facts backfire. The Boston Globe.

Kincheloe, J. L. (2005). Critical pedagogy primer. New York: Peter Lang.

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.

Mooney, C. (2011, May/June). The science of why we don’t believe science. Mother Jones.