Professional Voice 14.3.6

Evidence-based practice: Education’s panacea?

Stephanie Wescott

Introduction

An evidence-based orthodoxy has emerged in Australian education in recent years, insisting on the use of particular kinds of evidence to inform policy and practice. This orthodoxy is informed by the belief that in order for teachers to make the right decisions, and to teach well, they must base their practice on a collection of practices from a toolbox of approved evidence-based strategies.

Of course, we know teachers’ practice matters, and the impact of good teaching cannot be underestimated. However, it’s equally important to note that not all evidence is useful, nor is it always quality evidence. Additionally, evidence brokerage in Australia is aided by powerful policy networks and significant capital (see Rowe, 2023), a fact that complicates claims to evidence objectivity and neutrality.

There is a long history of critical scholarship on the ‘evidence-based’ orthodoxy. Critique has centred on what counts as evidence and who gets to decide, as well as the unquestioning trust in universal usefulness of evidence to inform and transform classroom teaching. Scholarship on evidence-based rhetoric has also questioned attempts to replicate a medical model of practice into education—an entirely separate and distinct field—with vast differences across regions and contexts.

Despite comprehensive critiques of both the rhetoric of evidence and of popular evidence-generating methodologies such as meta-analyses, unyielding faith in its potential to transform the system endures.

Why evidence?

Interest has emerged in recent years in the possibility of evidence as a regulator in the field of teaching, seeking to ‘remake’ practice as more visible and explicit. Looking to medicine’s clinical approach to research and practice has provided both policymakers and researchers with a potential model upon which to redesign the way that teaching and research is undertaken.

Evidence-based policy culture relies on unquestioning trust in the efficacy of particular kinds of research evidence. Assumptions about the reliability and accuracy of research evidence for implementation in all contexts, and initiatives offering certainty and effectiveness in practice are increasingly privileged over the nuanced, relational, affective expertise required to teach. Further, contemporary policy initiatives, such as the Department of Education and Training’s Victorian Teaching and Learning Model, function to achieve particular types of labour; routine, predictability and certainty, regulating and diminishing the imaginative, intuitive and divergent work of teaching.

Evidence culture often lauds particular types of educational research, which can lead to narrow representations of practice. My PhD research on the Victorian Teaching and Learning Model found that the evidence-base drawn on to formulate its teaching strategies was startlingly narrow, drawing on contested research and methodologies broadly problematised by a number of researchers, but framed in policy as ‘best practice.’

Despite issues in the impenetrable culture of evidence, its reliability and its politics, trust in evidence and its coercive power serve it well as a quick policy fix. Promises of evidence as a potential remedy for problems in equity and achievements are attractive opportunities for philanthropic investors, as well as being of interest for governments looking to shift policy responsibility.

Evidence and equity

One of the most interesting arguments in support of evidence-based policy and practice is the claim that it has the potential to improve educational ‘outcomes’ or lift Australian students’ performance and address long-standing issues of equity and underachievement. For example, the recently established Australian Education Research Organisation’s (AERO) key aim is:

 …for Australia to achieve excellence and equity in educational outcomes for all children and young people through effective use of evidence. (AERO, 2021, p. 2)

The connection between evidence use and education equity has also been drawn by Evidence for Learning, a not-for-profit organisation whose goal is, similarly, to ensure all children ‘make the best possible learning progress’ through improving the ‘availability’ and ‘use’ of evidence (Evidence for Learning, 2023).

While achieving excellence and equity for all children and young people in Australia is a worthy aim, the role that evidence use might have in reaching this objective—at least, in ways it appears in policy at present—is worthy of further interrogation.

We have abundant research on the social and economic determinants of educational success. Studies have examined the relationship between access to academic capital and social class, and others have captured the connection between educational achievement and socio-economic background. Yet, despite the known influence of social and economic advantage on education success, the chronic underfunding of public education in Australia and a profession with critical staff shortages, it is the notion that evidence use could function as a key tool in remedying an underperforming system that has attracted both government and philanthropic attention.

This attention has preceded vast amounts of funding in evidence brokerages such as AERO, entrenching further the uncritical adoption of evidence-based practice in Australian policy. Most problematically, this shifts responsibility of remedying educational equity onto teachers’ practice, absolving government responsibility to deliver social and economic policy that might create a fairer education system.

Evidence and educational improvement

This relationship between evidence use and educational improvement has been established in a number of government reports. The Productivity Commission’s National Education Evidence Base (2016), called for an ‘evidence-based approach to education policy and teaching practices’ (p. 2) to improve learning outcomes. The Report of the Review to Achievement Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (2018), advocated for the role of evidence in sustaining school improvement, and made the recommendation of the establishment of a national evidence institute, to generate, synthesise and disseminate research, so that evidence could be used to ‘improve student outcomes’ (p. 111).

In many ways, the claim that evidence plays a role in lifting student outcomes is a logical one. If the purpose of evidence is to uncover ‘what works’ with absolute certainty, then it should be distilled and disseminated to inform the practice of teaching. In finding the best possible approaches to maximise student learning, then surely a more equitable system will follow, where all students are recipients of the highest quality teaching practice.

However, if we are to accept that investment in evidence creation and synthesis is the answer to educational underperformance, we must also accept that social and economic disadvantage—factors that contribute to educational underperformance—and, which are in fact, material, social and systemic inequities, are unlikely to be solved by evidence syntheses and toolkits. The funding of a national evidence organisation, where the funds could have instead been directed to an under-resourced education system, speaks to the government’s subscription to the neoliberal idea that educational improvement can be achieved through discovering and implementing the correct set of practice strategies.

Further, questions about what kinds of evidence count toward the project of educational equity, and whose evidence will be accepted to inform practice, remain important ones to consider—and these questions are political, involving power, capital and influence. Although presented as ideologically neutral, as is the case with an evidence broker such as AERO, the possibility of neutrality must be challenged when their direction is driven by government ministers, with competing agendas and ideological allegiances.

Conclusion

Belief in the transformative potential of evidence-based practice or evidence-based policy in education is both political and subjective, despite its brokers claiming otherwise. It is not simply a case of producing, selecting and implementing allegedly ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ knowledge and awaiting improvement. As research in this area has demonstrated, whose evidence is considered ‘best practice’, how this evidence is used, and the connections between evidence-brokers are more a manifestation of power relations than good science.

Claims made by evidence brokers such as AERO about the transactional relationship between evidence use and improved learning outcomes deserve critique. When funding is allocated to evidence brokers, instead of in a chronically underfunded education system, it speaks to the belief in the potential for evidence to remedy long-standing issues that actually require social and economic policy attention. While it’s impossible to argue against continuing to develop our understanding of how students learn, ‘evidence-based practice’, in its current policy form, is more rhetorical than instructive; it is not a quick fix, nor will it serve to remedy long-standing inequities in the Australian schooling system.

Although evidence continues to be touted as education’s panacea, it serves only those who benefit directly from such a claim. It should not replace adequate investment in public education, nor attention to social and economic determinants of educational outcomes.

References

Australian Government Productivity Commission. (2016). National Education Evidence Base. https://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/education-evidence/report/education-evidence.pdf

Australian Education Research Organisation. (2021). Strategic plan. https://www.edresearch.edu.au/about-us/strategic-plan

Department of Education and Training. (2018). Through growth to achievement: Report of the Review to achieve educational excellence in Australian Schools. https://www.education.gov.au/quality-schools-package/resources/through-growth-achievement-report-review-achieve-educational-excellence-australian-schools

Rowe, E. (2023). Venture philanthropy in public schools in Australia: Tracing policy mobility and policy networks. Journal of Education Policy, 38(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2021.1973569

Dr Stephanie Westcott is a Lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences at Monash University with an interest in the intersection of educational practice and policy with current socio-political conditions.