• Evidence-based programs or practices have been demonstrated through research to be effective, while research-based programs or practices are based on scientific theories.
  • Evidence-based approaches require more rigorous testing and evaluation to ensure effectiveness.
  • Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the right approach depends on the context and goals of the intervention.

If you have a child with an IEP, you’ve probably heard the phrases “evidence based” vs “research based.” While the two terms are often used interchangeably, it is not correct to do so.

A stack of research-based hardcover books in various colors on a blurred background.

In the 14+ years that I’ve been a special education advocate, I’ve had many parents scoff at this. Vision therapy is only starting to get some data behind it. And, facilitated communication does not have a significant body of evidence.

These are just two things that parents have asked for in an IEP that I know of, and were told no because there wasn’t enough evidence or research to support the intervention.

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Look, I get it. While it wasn’t an IEP thing, my son had an experimental brain surgery several years ago. We were even profiled in a magazine and the neurosurgeon said, “It’s not anything that can hold up yet from a scientific perspective.”

But, we were desperate and out of options. And, I did have to go through numerous stages of insurance appeals to get it. The insurance companies don’t like to pay for anything, but certainly not stuff that doesn’t have evidence or research behind it.

While it might seem frustrating to some parents who want an intervention that does not fit this criteria, this requirement serves as a protection for our kids. After all, we don’t want IEP teams just grabbing ideas out of thin air for IEP interventions.

We want to be reasonably assured that this intervention is proven to work for children who have that particular skill deficiency.

History of Evidence Based vs Research Based

This concept of evidence based vs research based and school curricula actually goes back to the 1960s.

President Lyndon Johnson signed ESEA into law in 1965. ESEA stands for Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. This piece of legislation eventually morphed into both NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and the current version of today, ESSA, which stands for Every Student Succeeds Act.

But, even in its original iteration, it called for schools to use science-based programming when choosing programs and supports for students. Mind you, this was 10 years prior to IDEA being passed. So this preceded that–the precedent was already in place before IDEA was even a “thing.”

ESSA even defines it into 4 tiers. Not to be confused with RTI or MTSS tiers.

Tier 1 – Strong Evidence: supported by one or more well-designed and well-implemented randomized control experimental studies.

Tier 2 – Moderate Evidence: supported by one or more well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental studies.

Tier 3 – Promising Evidence: supported by one or more well-designed and well-implemented correlational studies (with statistical controls for selection bias).

Tier 4 – Demonstrates a Rationale: practices that have a well-defined logic model or theory of action, are supported by research, and have some effort underway by an SEA, LEA, or outside research organization to determine their effectiveness.

Interventions applied under Title I, Section 1003 (School Improvement) are required to have strong, moderate, or promising evidence (Tiers 1–3) to support them. All other programs under Titles I–IV can rely on Tiers 1–4.

Defining Evidence Based vs Research Based

Defining terms is a good place to start. According to The Dyslexia Initiative, evidence-based programs or practices are those that have been “demonstrated through research to be effective.” On the other hand, research-based programs or practices are those that are “based on scientific theories” and may use “existing analyses and theories to develop” an intervention.

While there is some overlap between the two, evidence-based approaches require more rigorous testing and evaluation to ensure effectiveness.

Evidence-Based Approach

“Evidence-based” refers to a method of decision-making or practice that relies on empirical evidence, typically gathered through systematic research, observation, or experimentation. In various fields such as medicine, psychology, education, and policy-making, an evidence-based approach involves using the most current and reliable evidence available to inform decisions, interventions, or policies.

This evidence may come from randomized controlled trials, observational studies, expert consensus, or other forms of rigorous research. The goal is to base decisions on solid, verifiable evidence rather than personal opinions, tradition, or anecdotal experience.

Research-Based Approach

“Research-based” typically refers to practices, methods, or interventions that are grounded in scientific research. It implies that the approach or technique has been developed, tested, and validated through rigorous research studies. This research might involve experiments, surveys, case studies, observational studies, or other methodologies aimed at generating empirical evidence.

In education, for example, a research-based instructional method would be one that has been demonstrated through research to be effective in improving student learning outcomes. Similarly, in psychology or medicine, a research-based therapy or treatment would be one that has been shown to be effective in clinical trials or through other forms of scientific inquiry.

Using research-based approaches is often considered essential for ensuring that practices are effective, efficient, and based on the best available evidence. It helps to distinguish between approaches that have been scientifically validated and those that are based on intuition, tradition, or anecdotal evidence.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Pros of Evidence-Based

Evidence-based programs have several advantages. They are based on the best available evidence and likely to be effective in achieving desired outcomes. Evidence-based programs are also more likely to be accepted by stakeholders, including funders and policymakers, because they are based on scientific evidence.

Additionally, evidence-based programs are more likely to be sustainable because they are based on proven methods.

Cons of Evidence-Based

One of the main disadvantages of evidence-based programs is that they can be inflexible. Because they are based on scientific evidence, they may not be adaptable to different contexts or populations. This is relevant when it comes to our kids and their IEPs.

I know that IEP parents network with each other. But, just because it worked for a child whose mom you met in a clinician’s waiting room, does not mean it will work for your child.

Another disadvantage is that evidence-based programs can be expensive to implement because they require extensive research and evaluation.

Finally, evidence-based programs may not be feasible in all settings because they require a certain level of resources and expertise.

Pros of Research-Based

Research-based programs are designed based on scientific theories and published studies. They likely to be effective because they are based on research.

Research-based programs are also more likely to be adaptable to different contexts or populations because they are based on theories that can be applied to different situations.

Additionally, research-based programs can be less expensive to implement because they do not require extensive research and evaluation.

Cons of Research-Based

One of the main disadvantages of research-based programs is that they may not be as effective as evidence-based programs because they are not based on proven methods.

Another disadvantage is that research-based programs may not be accepted by stakeholders, including funders and policymakers, because they are not based on scientific evidence.

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Finally, research-based programs may not be sustainable because they may not be based on proven methods.

Evidence Based vs Research Based


The terms “evidence-based” and “research-based” are closely related but can have slightly different connotations depending on the context:

  1. Evidence-based:
    • Focuses on using the most current and reliable evidence available to inform decision-making, interventions, or policies.
    • Emphasizes the importance of relying on empirical evidence, which can come from various sources such as randomized controlled trials, observational studies, expert consensus, or other forms of rigorous research.
    • The emphasis is on basing decisions on solid, verifiable evidence rather than personal opinions, tradition, or anecdotal experience.
  2. Research-based:
    • Refers to practices, methods, or interventions that are grounded in scientific research.
    • Implies that the approach or technique has been developed, tested, and validated through rigorous research studies.
    • While evidence-based practices also rely on research, the term “research-based” may emphasize a broader range of research methodologies and approaches beyond just empirical evidence, such as theoretical frameworks, qualitative research, or historical analysis.

In essence, evidence-based approaches specifically emphasize using empirical evidence to inform decisions, while research-based approaches encompass a broader range of research methodologies and may include evidence but also consider other forms of research-derived knowledge.

Healthcare and Medicine

In healthcare and medicine, both evidence-based and research-based approaches are used to develop treatment plans and interventions. Evidence-based practices (EBP) are integrated into clinical decision-making processes to provide the best possible care for patients.

EBP involves the integration of the best available research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values. Research-based practices, on the other hand, rely heavily on scientific theories and published studies to develop interventions.

Special Education

In the field of special education, evidence-based and research-based practices are used to improve student outcomes. Evidence-based practices (EBP) involve the integration of the best available research evidence with the expertise of educators and the needs of students.

Research-based practices, on the other hand, rely on scientific theories and published studies to develop interventions. Both approaches are used to design and implement effective teaching strategies, interventions, and programs.

Public Policy

In public policy, evidence-based and research-based practices are used to inform decision-making processes. Evidence-based practices (EBP) involve the integration of the best available research evidence with policy expertise and stakeholder needs.

Research-based practices, on the other hand, rely on scientific theories and published studies to develop interventions. Both approaches are used to design and implement effective policies and programs that address social issues and improve outcomes for individuals and communities.

In conclusion, evidence-based and research-based practices are used in various fields to develop effective interventions, policies, and programs. While both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, they provide valuable insights into the best practices for improving outcomes in various fields.

Does it matter for IEPs?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has consistently directed educators to implement interventions grounded in research. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), districts and schools were called to use “scientifically-based research” as the foundation for education programs and interventions.

This has been replaced by “evidence-based interventions” under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This shift was designed to help increase the impact of educational investments by ensuring that interventions being implemented have proven to be effective in leading to desired outcomes, namely improving student achievement.

Many ESSA programs encourage state educational agencies (SEAs), local educational agencies (LEAs), and schools to prioritize and include evidence-based interventions, strategies, or approaches.

So this is the weird part. I’ve had lots of IEP teams, usually LEAs, patronize me and my clients over research based vs evidence based. Try to explain the two to us, and tell us that one or the other is the reason that they cannot add that specific intervention.

The thing is, none of that is true. Both research based IEP interventions or evidence based IEP interventions can be added to a child’s IEP plan.

There is nothing in IDEA that prohibits either. Or, calls for one over the other. There are sections, for example, Subchapter IV (Part D) » Part B » 1465 » B that mention “research based.”

However, nowhere in there does it say “only research based.”

Most professionals in this space agree that evidence-based is preferred, especially when it comes to things like reading interventions for an IEP for dyslexia. However, science and technology is moving at a lightning fast pace right now. Getting evidence takes time, and an intervention may only have research vs evidence.

And, if research based interventions aren’t allowed (as I’ve been told by more than one LEA representative), then why would IDEA even mention them in Part B? Why wouldn’t they choose the term evidence based instead?

In my experience, the teams who try to use this argument to deny an SDI on an IEP, are only doing the old “smoke and mirrors” trick. Remembering the differences between the two is taxing on my brain. Heck, I’ve even confused myself several times while typing this up.

More confusion–in the information I provided above about ESSA, it does list what types of evidence are required for schools. But, let’s be clear here–they are required under ESSA, not IDEA. The main principle of IDEA is still that I, Individualized.

Again, in my experience, using ‘research vs evidence’ as their argument is weak at best. If they don’t want to give you a research-based intervention, fine. Then tell them to come up with one that is evidence based. You can kind of get them to paint themselves into a corner. (I’m just full of analogies today!)

If that is their argument for denying an intervention, then pick one out of the other category. See what argument they come up with then. Does that make sense?

Ultimately, the choice between evidence-based and research-based approaches will depend on a variety of factors, including the nature of the disability, the interventions available for that disability, and your IEP team’s expertise and experience in delivering that intervention.

It is important to carefully consider these factors before choosing an approach, as the wrong choice could lead to ineffective or even harmful outcomes.

Before I get on with the FAQs, like I said, I have confused myself several times over in writing this. Let me know if you catch an error, because I’m getting dizzy lol.

How do evidence-based and research-based approaches differ in educational settings?

In educational settings, research-based approaches are often used to develop interventions based on scientific theories. Researchers use existing analyses and theories to develop a program.

On the other hand, evidence-based approaches involve the use of prior research in a systematic and transparent way to inform a new study so that it is answering questions that matter in a valid, efficient, and accessible manner.

Why is it important to distinguish between evidence-based and research-based practices?

It is important to distinguish between evidence-based and research-based practices because they are not the same thing. Evidence-based practices are informed by prior research in a systematic and transparent way, while research-based practices are developed based on scientific theories.

Understanding the difference between the two can help educators make informed decisions about the best approach to take in a given situation.

What are the key differences between evidence-based and science-based methodologies?

The key difference between evidence-based and science-based methodologies is the way in which they are developed. Evidence-based methodologies involve the use of prior research in a systematic and transparent way to inform a new study.

Science-based methodologies, on the other hand, are developed based on scientific theories.

In what ways do research-based examples differ from evidence-based research examples?

Research-based examples are developed based on scientific theories, while evidence-based research examples are informed by prior research in a systematic and transparent way. The difference lies in the way in which the two approaches are developed.

How does research-informed practice contrast with evidence-based practice?

Research-informed practice involves the use of prior research to inform practice decisions, but it does not necessarily involve the same level of systematic and transparent use of prior research as evidence-based practice. Evidence-based practice involves the use of prior research in a systematic and transparent way to inform practice decisions.

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