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Evidence-Based Reform and Test-Based Accountability Are Not the Same

Among the many objections I sometimes hear to the concept of evidence-based reform in education is a concern that buying into evidence entails buying into stodgy, boring, top-down instruction. I think these concerns carry over from concerns about instruction driven by standardized testing and accountability. But evidence-based education and test-driven education are very different.

Evidence (and evidence-based reform) are entirely neutral on the nature of teaching. Whatever works is what is valued. The distinction between teaching driven by accountability and teaching informed by evidence is crucial. Using test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, at least as defined by NCLB, runs the risk of focusing teachers on a narrow band of reading and math skills, and school and district leaders often try to improve performance by "alignment," trying to get teachers to spend more time on the skills and knowledge likely to be assessed. In contrast, evidence-based policies have no such limitations. If instructional methods have been found to be effective in high-quality research on measures that are valued, then teachers may be encouraged to use these strategies. For example, even if writing, science, and social studies are not part of a given accountability scheme, teachers can be encouraged and assisted to use them anyway. This is particularly important to improve practices in areas or grade levels not assessed, but even in areas that are assessed, evidence shifts the focus of reform from curriculum alignment to professional development and adoption of proven strategies, including innovative materials, software, and strategies.

Given the likely dominance of accountability strategies in educational policies for a long time to come, evidence-based reform provides a crucial means of broadening favored strategies. If developers and researchers can identify methods of improving achievement beyond curriculum alignment, then this offers solid means of confronting the widespread belief that alignment is the best means of improving performance on accountability measures, a belief as central to the theory of action behind Common Core as to that behind NCLB.

In actual fact, proven programs in areas such as math and reading do not resemble boring, top-down, alignment-driven teaching. Instead, proven programs tend to emphasize engagement of students with content. Examples include cooperative learning, tutoring, and teaching of metacognitive strategies. None of these are boring teaching methods that put students in passive roles. The fact is, boring doesn't work. Stodgy, teacher-directed teaching doesn't work. Embracing evidence embraces a diversity of approaches and moves our field forward, building on the strengths of educators rather than micromanaging them, remaining open to anything that makes a difference on any valued measure.

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