Education: The Next Evidence-based Profession

Updated: Jul 9

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On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang posted a message to a group of his fellow medical school classmates: “A new coronavirus infection has been confirmed and its type is being identified. Inform all family and relatives to be on guard.” He was publicly rebuked for his claims and in January 2020 became one of the early victims of what would become known as COVID-19; a disease that would change the world forever.

In the weeks and months that followed, we witnessed science happening in real time. Doctors and medical researchers around the world teamed up to achieve a lengthy list of historic triumphs. Within 22 days of China’s notification of the discovery of the illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) documented evidence of human-to-human transmission. Within the first month from its detection, scientists had sequenced its genome and shared the sequence through open source channels so that researchers around the world could get to work on vaccines and treatment options. Within a year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted emergency authorization to the first vaccine against COVID-19; the fastest developed vaccine in history.

We watched nightly as broadcasters interviewed doctors, policy makers, and researchers who shared their work in real time. We experienced the frustration of science as recommendations changed, the medical field adapted, and society shifted. We saw their hope, their frustration, their despair, and their victories. It showed us what it truly means to be a member of an evidence-informed profession.

The medical field hasn’t always been an evidence-informed profession as we would describe it today. The medical profession began as a trade profession; one where master and apprentice worked together to serve the needs of the community. With the development of clinical epidemiology in the 1930s, a view of medicine that observed disease within its social and environmental context, scientific methodologies began to weave their way into medical training. In the 1970s, medical schools began incorporating biostatistics into their training programs, and by the late 1990s, the term evidence-based medicine had become mainstream within the profession (Zimerman, 2013). Medical professionals began to use research methodologies to better understand what was happening to their patients, and this led to a rapid improvement of health outcomes across the globe.

Today, the American Medical Association has enshrined the commitment to evidence-use in its Principles of Medical Ethics, which state “A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated.” Every medical professional has an established ethical obligation to use and create research that advances their field.

As the world begins to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time that the education profession takes up the mantle and fully self-actualizes into an evidence-based profession itself.

The education profession has been tip-toeing its way into the evidence space for a while. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) introduced the phrases “scientifically-based research” and “research-based” into the education lexicon. We would see a strengthening of this language in the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), which introduced the term “evidence-based” into our field and provided the first clear definition of such a term, as follows:

“… the term “evidence-based,” when used with respect to a State, local educational agency, or school activity, means an activity, strategy, or intervention that –

(i) demonstrates a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on –

(I) strong evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental study;

(II) moderate evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or

(III) promising evidence from at least one well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias; or

(ii) (I) demonstrates a rationale based on high-quality research findings or positive evaluation that such activity, strategy, or intervention is likely to improve student outcomes or other relevant outcomes; and

(II) includes ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention.”

This change led to a surge in compliance based evidence-use in the five years that followed its enactment as well as greater access to research for educators in the field. The What Works Clearinghouse made changes to its platform to help educators vet curriculum and programs in alignment to the ESSA standard and Johns Hopkins University released the