Monday, April 6, 2009

The Advantages of Research on Local Problems

The nomination of John Q. Easton as the new head of IES highlights a debate that has been going on for quite a long time. As Donald Campbell noted in the early 70s in his classic paper “The Experimenting Society” (updated in 1988), “The U.S. Congress is apt to mandate an immediate, nationwide evaluation of a new program to be done by a single evaluator, once and for all, subsequent implementations to go without evaluation.” In contrast, he describes a “contagious cross-validation model for local programs” and recommends a much more distributed approach that would “support adoptions that included locally designed cross-validating evaluations, including funds for appropriate comparison groups not receiving the treatment.” Using such a model, he predicts that “After five years we might have 100 locally interpretable experiments.” (p.303) The work of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which Easton has led, has a local focus on Chicago schools consistent with the idea that experiments should be locally interpretable. Elsewhere, we have argued that local experiments can also be vastly less expensive; thus having 100 of them is quite feasible. These experiments also can be completed in a more timely manner—it need not take five years to accumulate a wealth of evidence. We welcome a change in orientation at IES from organizing single large national experiments to the more useful, efficient, and practical model of supporting many local rigorous experiments. –DN

Campbell, D. T. (1988). The Experimenting Society. In E. S. Overman (Ed.), Methodology and epistemology for social science: Selected Papers. (pp. 303). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.