Vanguard of an Evidence-Based Society: Explaining the Experimental Mandate of the NCLB Act

Tytus Wilam, University of Chicago

Advocates of evidence-based policy and related forms—What Works in philanthropic and governmental grants, randomized controlled trials in development economics, experimental mandates in governmental research funding, and the many other instances of the general increase in the use of hierarchies of evidence, meta-analyses, and the “gold standard” of experimental evidence—are influentially arguing for an “evidence-based society” (EBS) where policy is based on best available quantitative evidence; and yet we don’t know where this overt emphasis on using best evidence, misleadingly suggesting that earlier policy was not based on evidence, came from and how it gained its present prominence. Existing accounts fall short as they ignore knowledge ignore politics, violate science studies’ symmetry principle, are not explanatory, or they begin their account too late, in the 21st century. This paper attempts to fill this gap by explaining why and how evidence-based thinking arose in one domain at one time—George W. Bush’s early-childhood reading policy—which (1) is the first context of use of “scientifically based research”, (2) created institutions and funding structures associated with EBP, (3) was connected to a high profile issue, teaching reading, and (4) popularized language of EBP. I show that evidence-based society took a long route to social policy through medicine, even though the methods of systematic review of quantitative research underpinning it first arose in the social sciences. I show that the parallel struggles of US politicians acting in the context of US debates about reading instruction, the so-called Reading Wars, and statisticians, medical doctors, and social scientists, who were explicitly arguing for an analogy between social policy and evidence-based medicine, enabled an alliance between groups of actors in the political and scientific ecologies. Using Andrew Abbott’s concept I show that the experimental mandate played the role of a “hinge” creating “linked ecologies.”

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 Presented in Session 1. Ranking Evidence, Evidencing Rank