An in-depth text based on this event is now available from Sage Publications.
A panel of internationally recognized scholars debate "What Constitutes Credible Evidence in Evaluation and Applied Research". (From left to right: Michael Scriven, Gary Henry, Leonard Bickman, Sandra Mathison, Jennifer Greene, Thomas Schwandt, and Sharon Rallis.)
The zeitgeist of accountability and evidence-based practice is now widespread across the globe. Organizations of all types and sizes are being asked to evaluate their practices, programs, and policies at an increasing rate. While there seems to be much support for the notion of using evidence to continually improve efficiency and effectiveness, there appears to be growing disagreement and confusion about what constitutes sound evidence. These disagreements have far-reaching implications for evaluation and applied research practice and for funding competitions, as well as for how best to conduct and use evaluation and applied research to promote human betterment.
In light of this debate, we assembled an illustrious group of experts working in various areas of evaluation and applied research to share their diverse perspectives on the question of "What Constitutes Credible Evidence?" This illuminating and action packed day in Claremont was hosted on Saturday, August 19, 2006. Over 200 attendees from all backgrounds--academics, researches, private consultants, students, and professionals from many fields--enjoyed a day of intense discussion and varied perspectives.
Over 200 people were in attendance for this highly-anticipated event. The symposium united an all-star cast of internationally-recognized scholars to debate—sometimes contentiously—the realities of using randomized control trials (RCTs), and the need for serious academic scholarship to inform evaluation. A 5-minute highlights reel is available here, as well as complete video of selected talks and panel discussions.
The day began with a cultural analysis by CGU President Robert Klitgaard of how we derive meaning from evidence. Foreshadowing a later talk by Dr. Gary T. Henry, President Klitgaard cautioned the audience to recognize their own presuppositions before attempting to understand other cultures. School of Social Science, Policy & Evaluation Dean Stewart Donaldson followed with a description of the current state of evaluation, and the rise of evidence-based practice in the face of the undeniable fact that good will and dollars are no longer considered enough to solve real-world social problems. Funding, standards of practice, and indeed all decision-making now depend on how policy makers—hopefully relying on the work of evaluators—decide what counts as evidence.
Following these introductory comments, the morning was devoted to exploring experimental approaches for building credible evidence. Dr. Russell Gersten began this exploration with an account of how the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) deals with the issues at hand. The WWC, which conducts and publishes reviews on the effectiveness of educational interventions on an ongoing basis, gives strong preference to evidence based on RCTs, effectively making them the "gold standard" for scientific evidence. Drs. Leonard Bickman and Gary T. Henry made it crystal clear why rigorous RCTs are critical for making high stake decisions, and cautioned the audience about the well-known pitfalls of non-experimental evidence.
A lively reaction panel kicked off the second portion of the program, focusing on non-experimental approaches for building credible evidence. The first speaker of the afternoon was Dr. Michael Scriven, formerly of CGU and one of the strong adversaries of the movement to privilege RCTs. Scriven’s assertion that RCTs are not necessary nor often appropriate for determining causation was backed up by Dr. Jennifer Greene. She framed the debate about evidence as political - not methodological. Complexity, she claimed, resists "methodological fundamentalism," and honors and respects the wondrous diversity of the human species. Examples of non-experimental attempts to deal with complexity were provided by Dr. Sharon Rallis, who focused on qualitative research, and Dr. Sandra Mathison, who addressed image-based research as a means to establish context and improve understanding. Finally, Dr. Thomas Schwandt went over many of the pitfalls that can corrupt the interpretation of evidence, even when the data itself is allegedly foolproof.
The day concluded with an even more animated discussion of the topic, outtakes of which may be seen here.
Finally, Dr. Mel Mark integrated the viewpoints expressed during the day in a talk cautioning all researchers and evaluators to contextualize their designs and their findings. He drove home the point that quantitative and qualitative methods cannot exist without one another for true understanding. The "gold standard" depends on the context, and just as gold is literally only the standard in dollar value—and not in clockworks or bullet-proof vests—credibility can be found amidst criteria such as validity, relevance, feasibility, or precision. Differences in qualitative/quantitative may result from different default assumptions about appropriateness itself.
Michael Scriven, Western Michigan University
Jennifer Greene, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sharon F. Rallis, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Sandra Mathison, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Thomas Schwandt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Brief Responses By Presenters
Audience Reaction & Participation
12:15 – 1:30pm, Lunch
Non-Experimental Approaches for Building Credible Evidence
Hallie Preskill, Chair, Claremont Graduate University
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*Note on the footage of Dr. Gersten's Talk
Due to technical difficulties, approximately 2 minutes of Dr. Gersten's talk have been omitted. This omission begins at 15 minutes, 44 seconds into the video.