I’ve just finished reading Margaret Wente’s latest Globe and Mail Opinion piece on the push for more rigorous evidence about the success (or lack of) of the social programs funded by various levels of government in Canada. This comes after being challenged on Twitter earlier in the week by B.C.’s Tobey Steeves to look a little deeper and more carefully at some of the ideologies and rhetoric associated with the way that we frame and talk about public education. Taking up his challenge, I’ve immersed myself in some of the writing of Gert Biesta, one of the many voices stepping forward to challenge some of the assumptions that we make when we talk about evidence-based strategies, best practice and scientific rigor.
At first blush, Wente’s call to a disciplined approach to research of social programs sounds like common sense, but when you begin to poke the beast a little, you may become sensitive to fact that not everything that is valuable and worthwhile is easily measured by even the most rigorous of scientific inquiries. Human communities, and the systems that we have designed to support them, are complex things and, as Biesta and others will argue, to attempt to impose a frame that looks to find a simple relationship of cause and effect is foolish and, itself, ineffective.
One of the questions that is missing from Wente’s rather casual stroll through the conversation has to do with what we mean by success or failure of any particular social program. What do we intend to have happen when we fund the development of community-based social clubs, systems of mentorship, or job-training programs. Is it a lower crime rate? Is it better-adjusted young people? Could it be higher test scores?
I’m not a fan of careless spending in any area of public life. But I think that we have to be very careful about defining what we mean by success, and what measures will provide the best feedback on effectiveness. And I’m not convinced by Wente’s (and other’s) suggestion that evidence-based rigor is the answer.
After all, what have testing protocols like Ontario’s EQAO done to the quality of education in the province?
I would like to follow this thread further over the next few days. Your insights are most appreciated!