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Evidence-based policy is the practice of basing policy decisions on rigorous research evidence, such as randomized experiments. But it is unclear how often evidence-based decisions produce more effective policy. We evaluate an evidence-based policy implemented in 1989-93, after the state of Tennessee completed the famous Project STAR randomized experiment, which showed that reducing average class sizes from 23 to 15 could raise test scores by nearly 0.2 standard deviations (SD). After Project STAR, the state launched Project Challenge, which tried to achieve similar score gains by earmarking $5 million to reduce class sizes in the state’s 17 poorest districts.
We evaluate the effects of Project Challenge by applying regression discontinuity and difference in differences analysis to data from district report cards. Our analysis offers no evidence that Project Challenge districts raised test scores, and even raises questions about whether districts reduced class sizes. After Project Challenge, Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan did reduce class sizes, but only by a token amount, from 26 to 25. In this example, it seems that a successful randomized experiment did not lead to successful policy.
Debates in education policy draw on different theories about how to raise children’s achievement. The school competition theory holds that achievement rises when families can choose among competing schools. The school resource theory holds that achievement rises with school spending and resources that spending can buy. The family resources theory holds that children’s achievement rises with parental education and income. We test all three theories in Chile between 2002 and 2013, when reading and math scores rose by 0.2-0.3 standard deviations, while school competition, school resources, and family resources all increased. In a difference in differences analysis, we ask which Chilean municipalities saw the greatest increases in test scores. Test scores did not rise faster in municipalities with greater increases in competition, but did rise faster in municipalities with greater increases in school resources (teachers per student) and especially family resources (parental education, not income). Student grade point averages show similar patterns. Results contradict the school competition theory but fit the family resource theory and, to a lesser extent, the school resource theory.