Taking the Guesswork Out of Policy
In a wonderful article in the Washington Post on December 7, Dylan Matthews makes the altogether rational argument that Congress should routinely authorize evaluations of programs it is thinking of signing into law:
"In a perfect world, (reporting on policy) would be a kind of science reporting. Just as my colleagues at the health desk often explain which medicines are effective and which are a bust, I'd ideally be able to describe what sociologists, economists, and political scientists have discovered about which policies work."
Followers of Sputnik will not be surprised to hear that I strongly support this position, and am delighted to see it expressed in the Post, especially after a recent Op Ed by Jon Baron in the New York Times made similar arguments. But I did want to build a bit on Matthews' argument. In fact, there is often evidence on whether a given program is likely to work, but Congress routinely ignores it. It may be that the evidence is mixed or difficult to understand. In other cases, the evidence is clear but for political or ideological reasons it does not matter.
Further, the vast majority of government funding goes into programs that already exist, and are so politically popular that they are sure to exist for a long time. In education, the classic example is Title I, a $15 billion program that has provided funding to disadvantaged schools since the Johnson administration.
So here is my friendly amendment to Matthews' article: In addition to testing out initiatives that Congress is considering, let's also proactively test out innovative ways of using the money that government already spends. For example, let's fund the creation, evaluation, and dissemination of programs to be used under funding from Title I, or IDEA, or other long-established programs certain to continue in some form. This is a goal of the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program, of course, which is funding development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs, but at $150 million annually, i3 is only 1% of Title I funding and a trivial proportion of all education funding.
Building up a strong, well-validated set of solutions to the enduring problems of education is the best investment Congress could make in education, and the current Congress and administration have gone further in this direction than any before them. Yet there remains a lot of work to do to ensure that the best programs and practices become available to all children, especially those in need.