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A Place at the Table: Social Science and Federal Policymaking

In case you missed it, I have a story in this week's edition of EdWeek on what many see as a lack of research evidence to back up some of the ideas at the heart of the U.S. Department of Education's plans for improving education.

That's been a disappointment for some who were encouraged by President Obama's inaugural pledge to "restore science to its rightful place" in government decisionmaking. But, then again, as others have pointed out, there aren't all that many proven strategies in education, and sometimes policy has to get out ahead of the research.

The dilemma for policymakers, of course, is how much weight to give research when crafting new programs. If policymakers are going to put in place programs, such as the department's Race to the Top Fund, that favor interventions like charter schools or performance-based pay, shouldn't they be sure that these strategies are proven to work?

In keeping with that debate, John Hutchins at MDRC e-mailed me this policy brief by the Future of Children series, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and Princeton University. In it, social scientists Ron Haskins, Christina Paxson, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn describe how research evidence came to have a prominent role in a debate this year over funding for home-visiting programs, which bring services and education to low-income families with newborn children.

The original proposal, contained in President Obama's 2010 budget blueprint, called for setting aside $8 billion over 10 years to fund "nurse home-visiting programs." That set off a lobbying scuffle among providers of home-visiting programs—not all of which employ nurses.

The compromise, written into a bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, was to remove the word "nurse" from the proposal and call instead for funding only programs that "will produce sizable, sustained improvements in the health, well-being, or school readiness of children or their parents." The bulk of the money, under this plan, would go to programs with the "strongest evidence of effectiveness." A smaller amount would go to other programs.

Sorting out which programs have the "strongest evidence of effectiveness" and which don't won't be easy, the authors concede. "But," they write,

"it must be counted as a victory for social science that the federal policy process now hinges importantly on evidence of benefits, a clear sign that both the administration and congress want to do everything they can to fund successful programs."

Peter Orszag, the director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, also expressed support for this sort of "two-tier" model in a June 8 blog posting that I wrote about earlier this summer.

Should the Education Department follow suit?

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