Hoover Daily Report

Education Policy and Information

Monday, January 14, 2002

Economists say that the unequal distribution of information compromises market efficiency. Advocates of free-market school reforms such as charter schools and voucher programs should heed this important truth, as should school boards and state legislators. Without a free flow of reliable information, parents and policymakers cannot make intelligent decisions. Unfortunately, reliable information is a scarce resource in the education world.

Educational data exist in oversupply, but there's a critical difference between data and information. Data do not speak for themselves; they must be interpreted by teasing out the separate factors that affect educational outcomes and assigning relative causality to them. Useful analyses, dependable generalizations, and accurate interpretations of educational data are in short supply.

To those who must make decisions, it is disconcerting that so much educational data have produced so little usable information. The November 7 issue of Education Week reports that data on the multimillion-dollar "whole school" reform effort are inconclusive. Similarly, the November issue of Scientific American reports that data on the effects of class-size reduction are also inconclusive. We cannot draw dependable policy implications from these studies because the data remain ungeneralized and, in a fundamental sense, uninterpreted.

The best recent attempt to generalize educational data was offered by the late Jeanne Chall in her slender last book, The Academic Achievement Challenge—the fruit of a lifetime of engagement with educational research. Yet Chall's book has had a negligible effect on charter schools or state policies because its information has not been disseminated. Some thoughtful philanthropist should send thousands of copies of Chall's book to those in a position to affect policy.

One of the greatest gains in our understanding of scientific method came with the insight that data take on new meanings with new interpretations and that the best interpretations take into account relevant knowledge from the widest possible range of domains. We need to transform the ocean of educational data into usable information on the basis of the most wide-ranging and exacting analyses. In a field beset with ideology and politics, it is not surprising that good science is in short supply. But regardless of one's faith in markets or, alternatively, in state regulation, we still need reliable information, which means that we need really good science, not the impostor that now calls itself "research" in the field of education. Without better information we are unlikely to achieve much improvement in the quality and equity of our schools.