A widely used adjective in education, evidence-based refers to any concept or strategy that is derived from or informed by objective evidence—most commonly, educational research or metrics of school, teacher, and student performance. Among the most common applications are evidence-based decisions, evidence-based school improvement, and evidence-based instruction. The related modifiers data-based, research-based, and scientifically based are also widely used when the evidence in question consists largely or entirely of data, academic research, or scientific findings.

If an educational strategy is evidence-based, data-based, or research-based, educators compile, analyze, and use objective evidence to inform the design an academic program or guide the modification of instructional techniques. For example, ninth-grade teachers in a high school may systematically review academic data on incoming freshman to determine which students may need some form of specialized assistance and which students may be at greater risk of dropping out or struggling academically. By looking at absenteeism, disciplinary infractions, and course-failure rates during middle school, teachers can identify students who are more likely to struggle in ninth grade, and they can then proactively prepare academic programs, services, and learning opportunities to reduce the likelihood that those students will fail or drop out. In this case, educators are taking an evidence-based approach to instructing and supporting students in ninth grade. (This specific example is often called an “early warning system.”)

While research and “quantitative” numerical data are arguably the most common forms of evidence used in education and school reform, educators also use a wide variety of “qualitative” information to diagnose student-learning needs or improve academic programming, including discussions with students and parents, work products created by students and teachers, the results of surveys completed by students and school staff, or observations of teaching—among many other possible forms of evidence. In professional learning communities, for example, groups of teachers may meet regularly to discuss evidence such as research literature, lesson materials, or student-work samples as a way to improve their teaching skills or modify instructional techniques in ways that work better for certain students. Teachers in the group may also observe colleagues while they teach and then provide them with constructive feedback and advice. For a related discussion, see action research.


The use of objective evidence in education reform has grown increasingly common in recent decades, and a wide variety of research and data are now regularly used to identify strengths and weaknesses in schools, guide the design of academic programming, or hold schools and teachers accountable for producing better educational results, for example. From tracking standardized-test scores and graduation rates to using student information systems, sophisticated databases, and other new educational technologies, today’s educators are more likely to use educational data, in one form or another, on a regular basis. In addition, educational research is increasingly being used by reform organizations, charitable foundations, elected officials, policy makers, school leaders, and teachers to inform everything from federal education policies to philanthropic investments to specialized teaching techniques in the classroom.

The growing use of evidence, data, and research in education mirrors a general information-age trend, in a wide variety of fields and professions, toward more objective, fact-based decisions. Historically, educators had to rely largely on personal experience, professional judgment, past practices, established conventions, and other subjective factors to make decisions about how and what to teach—all of which could potentially be inaccurate, misguided, biased, or even detrimental to students. With the advent of modern data systems and research techniques, educators now have access to more objective, precise, and accurate information about student learning, academic achievement, and educational attainment.


Debates about evidence-based approaches to education or school reform depend largely on the evidence and context in question, including how the available evidence is specifically being used or not used. For example, in some situations educators may argue that there is now such an overabundance of data that it has become infeasible, or even impossible, for schools and educators to act thoughtfully and appropriately on available evidence, given that merely collecting, processing, and analyzing so much data or research findings requires far more money, time, human resources, and specialized expertise than schools, districts, or state education agencies have. In other cases, schools and school systems may largely or entirely ignore available evidence; consequently, readily diagnosable school problems may go unaddressed, while effective, well-established teaching practices are never used.

The quality of available evidence, as well as the methods used to interpret research and data, can also contribute to ongoing debates. As in many other fields and professions, education is fraught with conflicting viewpoints, beliefs, and philosophies that can give rise to the misinterpretation or distortion of seemingly concrete and objective evidence. For example, the selection and presentation of data can be manipulated to confirm or disprove existing theories, and cherry-picking certain research findings, and ignoring others, can be used to generate the perception that certain educational strategies are more successful than they truly are. When researching or reporting on evidence-based approaches to school reform, it is important to investigate the source, quality, reliability, and validity of the evidence in question.

It is also worth noting that while both quantitative and qualitative evidence are widely used in education, there is debate about how these different types of evidence should be weighed and considered. For example, some educators believe that qualitative evidence is “squishy” and more susceptible to subjectivity, while others may argue that quantitative evidence is too narrow and limited and that it should not be used without taking other forms of evidence into consideration, including the opinions and perspectives of students and teachers.

For a related discussion, see measurement error.

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