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The Siren Song of "Evidence-Based" Instruction

Reasons to be skeptical of the phrase "the science of..." in education.

I'm geeky enough to get a little excited each time a psychology or education journal lands in my mailbox. Indeed, I've spent a fair portion of my life sorting through, critically analyzing, and writing about social science research. Even my books that are intended for general readers contain, sometimes to the dismay of my publishers, lengthy bibliographies plumped with primary sources so that anyone who's curious or skeptical can track down the studies I've cited.

Why, then, have I developed a severe allergy to the phrases "evidence-based" and "the science of..." when they're used to justify certain educational practices? It took me a while to sort out my concerns and realize that these terms raise five distinct questions.

1. What kind of evidence? A healthy respect for data protects us from relying on unrepresentative anecdotes or falling for conspiracy theories. But some people take an extreme, reductionist view of what qualifies as data, dismissing whatever can't be reduced to numbers, or ignoring inner experience and focusing only on observable behaviors, or attempting to explain all of human life in terms of neurobiology. All of these have troubling implications for education, leaving us with a shallow understanding of the field. People who talk about the "science" of reading or learning, for example, rarely attend to student motivation or the fact that "all learning is a social process shaped by and infused with a system of cultural meaning."1

2. Evidence of what? When someone says that science conclusively proves that this instructional strategy is more effective than that one, what exactly is meant by "effective"? Amazingly, as I've discussed elsewhere, that question is rarely asked. Often, it turns out that "effective," along with other terms of approbation ("higher achievement," "positive outcomes," "better results"), signify nothing more than scoring well on a standardized test. Or having successfully memorized a list of facts. Or producing correct answers in a math class (without grasping the underlying principles). Or being able to recognize and pronounce words correctly (without necessarily understanding their meaning).

3. Evidence of an effect on whom? Even large, well-constructed studies typically are able to show only that some ways of implementing a particular practice have some probability of producing some degree of benefit for some subset of students in some educational contexts. Even one of these qualifiers, let alone all of them, means that evidence of an "on-balance" effect for a given intervention doesn't mean it's a sure bet for all kids.

Yet it's common to make just such an inference, which is why so many literacy experts are skeptical of what's being presented as "evidence-based" in their field.

"Effective teaching is not just about using whatever science says 'usually' works best," Richard Allington reminds us. "It is all about finding out what works best for the individual child and the group of children in front of you."2

Science complicates more often than it simplifies, which is your first clue that the use of "evidence-based" or "the science of...." to demand that teachers must always do this or never do that—or even that they should be legally compelled to do this (or forbidden from doing that)—represents the very antithesis of good science.

4. Evidence of an effect at what cost? It's not just that restricting evidence to what can be seen or measured limits our understanding of teaching and learning. It's that doing so ends up supporting the kind of instruction that can alienate students and sap their interest in learning. Thus, schooling becomes not only less pleasant but considerably less effective. This exemplifies a broader phenomenon that Yong Zhao describes as a tendency to overlook unanticipated, harmful consequences. Even if a certain way of teaching did produce the desired effects, he argues, an inattention to its damaging side effects means that what's sold to us as "evidence-based" can sometimes do more harm than good.3

5. Does "evidence-based" refer to evidence at all? That citing research in support of a claim can raise as many questions as it answers should give us pause. Even more disturbing is the fact that the term evidence-based sometimes functions not as a meaningful modifier but just as a slogan, an all-purpose honorific like "all-natural" on a food label. Rather than denoting the existence of actual evidence, its purpose may be to brand those who disagree with one's priorities as "unscientific" and pressure them to fall in line.

This would be troubling enough if evidence and science were employed to justify all sorts of educational approaches, as seems to be the case with a label like "best practice." But these words are almost always used to defend traditionalist practices such as direct instruction and control-based interventions derived from Skinnerian behaviorism such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). A kind of ideological fervor tends to fuel each of these things, whereas actual empirical support for them could be described as somewhere between dubious and negligible.4

A quarter-century ago, defenders of high-stakes standardized exams resorted to the same strategy on behalf of the punitive, test-driven No Child Left Behind Act. The word science (or scientific) appeared more than a hundred times in the text of that law. In reality, no controlled study then or since has ever found any benefit to high-stakes testing—other than the tautological claim that it raises scores on those same tests. The damage done to the quality of teaching and learning by NCLB has been incalculable.5

A few years earlier, as math professor Bill Jacob reported, "the use of problem-solving as a means of developing conceptual understanding [in math] was abandoned and replaced by direct instruction of skills" in California, and this move was similarly rationalized by "the use of the code phrase research-based instruction" even though the available research actually tended to point in the opposite direction (and still does). Indeed, Jacob added, the phrase research-based was just "a way of promoting instruction aligned with ideology."6

Much the same was true for reading instruction back then, and today such efforts have been turbocharged, with systematic phonics instruction for all children being sold, misleadingly, as the "science of reading."7 Explicit academic instruction in preschools, too, is presented as evidence-based even though, once again, actual evidence not only fails to support this approach but warns of its possible harms.8

At best, then, there are important questions to ask about evidence that's cited in favor of a given proposal, particularly when it's intended to justify a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy. At worst, the term evidence-based is used not to invite questions but to discourage them, much as a religious person might seek to end all discussion by declaring that something is “God’s will.” Too often, the invocation of "science" to defend traditionalist education reflects an agenda based more on faith than on evidence.


1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, How People Learn II (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), p. 27. Regarding the exclusion of motivation, see Seth A. Parsons and Joy Dangora Erickson, "Where Is Motivation in the Science of Reading?", Phi Delta Kappan, February 2024, pp. 32-36.

2. Richard L. Allington, "Ideology Is Still Trumping Evidence," Phi Delta Kappan, February 2005, p. 462.

3. Yong Zhao, What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education (Teachers College Press, 2018). For a shorter version (with the same title), see this article in the Journal of Educational Change.

4. On direct instruction, see the research in the first half of my 2024 essay "Cognitive Load Theory: An Unpersuasive Attempt to Justify Direct Instruction." On ABA, see Micheal Sandbank et al., "Project AIM," Psychological Bulletin 146 (2020): 1-29, whose findings I described in "Autism and Behaviorism." ABA and PBIS rely on rewards to elicit compliance, and I've offered a lengthy critical appraisal of that strategy and of behaviorism more generally: Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993/2018).

5. For example, see the essays in Deborah Meier et al., Many Children Left Behind (Beacon Press, 2004).

6. Bill Jacob, "Implementing Standards: The California Mathematics Textbook Debacle," Phi Delta Kappan, November 2001, pp. 265, 266.

7. As of this writing, the most comprehensive treatment of the topic is Robert J. Tierney and P David Pearson, Fact-Checking the Science of Reading (Literacy Research Commons, 2024). Also see David Reinking et al., "Legislating Phonics," Teachers College Record 125 (2023): 104-31; Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon, "An Examination of Dyslexia Research...," Literacy Research 70 (2021): 107-28; Jeffrey S. Bowers, "Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective...," Educational Psychology Review 32 (2020): 681-705; Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury, "Reading Wars or Reading Reconciliation?", Review of Education 10 (2022): e3314; and Catherine Compton-Lilly et al., "Stories Grounded in Decades of Research," The Reading Teacher 77 (2023): 392-400.

8. See Peter Gray, "Beware of 'Evidence-Based' Preschool Curricula," Psychology Today, December 9, 2021; and, for a review of earlier research on the subject, this lengthy excerpt from my book The Schools Our Children Deserve (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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