Educational investments and returns throughout life – and the new paradigm of “evidence-based research”

Petra Herre

“Educational investments and returns throughout life” was the topic of a forum that took place in Bonn in October 2014, attended by top-class individuals. In a broader sense, this event is embedded in the context of discussions on the reform of the education system in the Federal Republic of Germany, which has been part of the agenda since the mid-1990s and which has been in the public eye with great intensity since the turn of the millennium. The impulse came from the results of international comparative studies and large scale assessments (TIMS, PISA, PIACC), which exposed the weaknesses and performance gaps in the German education system. The results of the first PISA study (2001) shocked the German public.

It became the impulse for a critical review and diverse reform initiatives. The “third educational reform” (1) in the Federal Republic of Germany has been called for under the motto “Rethink education!” [“Bildung neu denken!”]. (2) In this context, empirical educational research was given a new importance and was developed further: it became normal to measure education.

Education policy moved up the rank of political importance, which was also reflected in the higher financial allocations. This development is led by the widely prevailing understanding that an efficient education system and the organisation of its offers are eminently important for the economic development, social cohesion and cultural diversity of a society. This particularly applies in light of the structural change towards a knowledge-based service society, the requirements of increasing globalisation and the development of new technologies in the information and communications sector.

“Knowledge to act”?

Against this background, an “empirical change (Jürgen Baumert) in politics and science” and an evidence-based education policy (3) were put forward, for which a close relationship between education policy and empirical educational research is constitutive (Andreas Storm, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research/2008).

“Knowledge to act” is the name of the education policy’s requirement for empirical educational research. After all, education policy could only meet expectations if it can draw on solid findings from science, i.e. be evidence-based. The policy’s central question for educational research is “what works?”. New requirements are being formulated for this. Discussions focus on the “benefit orientation” of research, the quick transfer of research findings to social discussions, political decision-makers and to practice. However, the “what works” question is rather full of preconditions. It has an aspect focused on fundamental research, which concerns the identification of causally attributable effects of pedagogical measures or education policy programmes on defined target parameters. Is performance development, for example, affected by the measures? It also has an application-oriented aspect. The question is asked as to whether new measures or programmes are visibly effective in the complex fields of action under discussion, and whether the implementation of an innovation is even “worth” it against the background of existing practice? The programme of an evidence-based educational reform is controversial and is significantly criticised to some extent, both in view of the desirability and its feasibility. However, this approach of rational policy makes communication an interface for the two areas.

Educational research and education policy under discussion

The second education policy forum included this problematic issue and wanted to act as a place for discussion between educational research and education policy. Guests were invited by the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE) – Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning and the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary Leibniz Research Alliance “Leibniz Education Research Network”, a network (4) of 16 non-university and publicly financed Leibniz institutes5, whose goal is to make “better use of the potentials of education for education” and “to find starting points for sustainable concepts and promising reforms at an individual, institutional and social level”, according to the spokesperson for the Association, Prof. Marcus Hasselhorn (DIPF) (6). The focus thus lies on the effectiveness of research and the implementation of knowledge from research: To make better use of research-based knowledge, the cooperation of research, politics, administration and practice would have to be reinforced, emphasised the Scientific Director of the DIE, Prof. Josef Schrader, programmatically in his opening speech.

The political field was represented by Sylvia Löhrmann, Minister for Schools and Further Education in North Rhine-Westphalia and currently President of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany, who spoke about the experiences and expectations. Prof. Heinz-Elmar Tenorth (Prof. em. at the Humboldt University of Berlin) dealt with the communication between educational research and education policy from a scientific perspective.

The other focus of the event was on the enormous education policy challenges that the Federal Republic of Germany has to face on the way to becoming a powerful education system based on equal opportunities. It took up current problems and discussed research results and possible solutions for the various fields of education throughout life (“education throughout life”) from early childhood education and care, schools and teacher training, vocational and higher education to continuing education as part of the discussion forums.

Measuring the field: For communication between educational research and education policy

How can the dialogue succeed? This question was addressed by the well-known historian of education Prof. Heinz-Elmar Tenorth from the Humboldt University of Berlin. His keynote lecture processed this question in a very fundamental way and also contributed to the self-clarification of science.

It quickly became clear that the relationship is not an easy one. The communication between educational research and education policy is a rather difficult terrain and rather than speaking about “dialogue”, which would suggest an empathic cooperation, Tenorth took a system theoretical perspective and referred to the “communication” of various systems with different logics of action. If the system of “science” is about “truth”, then politics is about power and creative will, in accordance with the functional imperative of the political system, that of the creation of binding decisions. Moreover, politics and science differed in terms of time patterns and social forms. Science tends to think over longer periods of time, while politics thinks in election and legislative periods. Nevertheless the interdependencies were impressive: Modern politics needs information and a framework for action. These are provided by science. Science itself has to explore the world autonomously, while, however, being dependent on resources and funds decided by politicians.

Success factors: Conceptual similarities – an understanding of education and the process model of education throughout life

Regardless of the tensions, politics and science have a common theoretical reference system that makes communication possible and efficient. Tenorth showed examples of this in “products of cooperation”, the National Report on Education and the Report on Children and Youths. Politics and research have a common interest in answering the question: “How is education possible?”. And this is about “education throughout life”, and thus about “the self-construction of the subject in conjunction with the world”, which means “the simultaneity of individuation and socialisation”. There is also the normative belief that education should be universal, equal and fair.

According to Tenorth, both “partners” refer to the same process model of education: education takes place throughout life and in the “linking of institutions” that provide education. This allows diagnoses, the description of effects and mechanisms of action and the identification of “links” for interventions. The information of the science system generated in this way would then need to be translated into the language of politics. And, while emphasising the limitation, he said that there would be “consequential burdens”, “limitations” and “undesirable effects” in communication. Moreover, the environments of both systems cannot be controlled as regards communication; they are parties, the public or pedagogical environments in practice, their interpretations or cultures of reception.

Exaggerated promises – Illusions of control – Unavoidable irritations

However, he also doesn’t conceal the failures in the cooperation of science and politics: “Exaggerated promises” from educational research would have resulted in exaggerated illusions of control by politicians. Yet not everything is feasible. He named the discussions on “integration” and “inclusion” as examples of this. These “rhetorical formulas from a political angle” should not demand operationalisation.

Tenorth also criticised the “weak self-criticism of the sciences”, the way they jump on constantly new promises (of salvation) from empirical research and trends, how they are connected to the keywords learning machines, programmed teaching, behaviourist learning models or educational neuroscience. He also identified failure factors in the field of politics: an immunisation against criticism, the inability of politicians to recognise “self-generated evil”, self-centeredness in departments and the lack of an overall view that due to the “dispersion” of responsibilities (7) across a large number of ministries at federal and state level results in what “education throughout life” means. Furthermore, politicians’ addiction to interventions and reforms causes problems.

How is the new paradigm of “evidence-based research” to be assessed? The historian Tenorth is sceptical. It isn’t the “ideal solution” that would lead to clear recommendations; after all, the various systemic logics of action are not so easily bypassed. In response to the question of politicians as to “what works?”, the researchers answered by arguing for an “adjournment” or by demanding more research. Tenorth calls these “unavoidable irritations” caused by the “specific nature” of knowledge production in educational science and the “paradoxical structure of education”. Educational practice constitutively works away at the problem of the educational obligation and general freedom of the individual. For this tension between individualisation and universalisation/socialisation, which is covered in all educational issues, there is no “solution” in the traditional way of thinking of the philosophy of enlightenment. In this respect, Tenorth repelled positivist expectations regarding clear control knowledge.

Focus on learning

The participants came to a positive conclusion at the final podium at which Professor Peter Drewek from the Ruhr University Bochum also took part in addition to Professor Dr. Tenorth and Prof. Hasselhorn. The format of the event seemed to be a good starting point and benchmark for the exchange between science and politics. However, other stakeholders have to be included such as the independent providers of adult education and the social partners. Research, formulated by Hasselhorn as learning in view of the work of the Leibniz institutes, has to act in more of a “service mode” rather than a “recognition mode”. Moreover, implementation and transfer have to be given greater focus. Tenorth once again referred to momentums and control problems in education, e.g. in view of the participation in education, which cannot be so easily influenced by politics, but rather heavily determined by the affinity of education in the respective environment. The discussion table was in agreement that educational research must take a greater advisory perspective: policy advice geared to the common good is an important task of the research institutes and expert committees.

“Educational investments and returns throughout life” – Educational research and education policies under discussion – 2nd Education Policy Forum of the Leibniz Research Alliance “Leibniz Education Research Network”


1 Action Committee on Education [Aktionsrat Bildung] 2000-2010-2020. 2011 annual expert report, 11

2 Rethink education! A project for the future. vbw (Association of the Bavarian Economy [Vereinigung der Bayrischen Wirtschaft]) 2003

3 The approach of the evidence-based policy originated from the British government’s “Modernizing Government” programme in 1999 and has become an exemplary model of education policy. Education system

4 This network is composed of experts from 16 Leibniz institutes in the fields of educational sciences, subject didactics, neuroscience, economics, political science, psychology and sociology as well as information science and computer science.

5 The Federal Republic of Germany places great importance on non-university research institutes and organisations or associations (4 of them exist). This includes the now 89 institutes of the Leibniz Association.

6 German Institute for International Educational Research

7 Ministries of education, social affairs, labour, family affairs, etc.

European InfoNet Adult Education, 05.02.2015