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Egad! School Research Has Power

I have long believed that politicians never read education research reports, and if they do, only believe the ones that confirm their biases. Timothy A. Hacsi's brilliant 2002 book, "Children As Pawns: The Politics of Education Reform," proved this with many examples. But here comes Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, a well-known trouble maker, saying that in at least one recent instance, my faith in the intentional ignorance of pols has been mistaken.

In the latest issue of his magazine Education Next, Peterson presents the example of a recent study of public charter and pilot schools in Boston, initiated by the Boston Foundation and overseen by Harvard Graduate School of Education economist Thomas Kane. Charter schools are public schools largely independent of their school districts. Pilot schools are public schools that still answer to their school district leaders, but are allowed to experiment with some innovative policies such as ignoring seniority when hiring teachers. I reported the Boston study's results in my Friday Trends column in February. The charter schools did significantly better. I presented it as a victory for the charter people, who support total freedom from the clumsy administrative power of school districts, over the pilot people, who think their limited freedom is good enough.

What I didn't know, and what Peterson revealed, is that several important players in Massachusetts politics expected the pilot schools to do much better in the study, which would help them pass new laws limiting the growth of charters. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino read the study and turned unexpectedly in a pro-charter direction, despite his ties to anti-charter union leaders, Peterson said.

This is Peterson's take on it. Maybe some of the other 2 million political scientists in the greater Boston area (where even I managed to acquire a political science degree) will say he got it wrong. I hope so. If pols start reading education research and acting on it, we professional cynics are in big trouble.

By Jay Mathews  | September 9, 2009; 4:41 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web, Trends  
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Glad to hear you are interested in school research:-) Here is a piece that shows evidence contrary to a program you believe works.

Posted by: researcher2 | September 10, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

C'mon, Jay.

"The best way for a popular mayor to remain that way is to catch a changing wind before it acquires gale force, in this case a wind set in motion by the Kane evaluation. When circumstances are right, professors can be as powerful as politicians."

The wind wasn't set in motion by the Kane evaluation. (And Kane is only one 7 authors of the report.) The wind was already blowing and the report was used by Charterists to promote the "movement." Peterson is citing a secondary report, and you are citing Peterson--all spin.

The original report is well-worth reading:

The inquiry was competently conducted and is carefully reported.

What is overlooked in the debate on school type is that whatever the type, the differences in performance within a school is greater than the difference between types.

Second, as the report recognizes, what goes on in instruction remains a black box:

"For the moment, we cannot say which educational strategies or characteristics are most valuable in each school setting, though that is a question we hope to address in future work. Thus, it’s
important to keep in mind the fact that there might be many reasons for a school’s success: instructional focus, student/teacher ratios, staff qualifications or background, use of tutor, and length of school day, to name a few."

Posted by: DickSchutz | September 10, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse


But what do you do when research contracts your position or the position of educators who you promote like Michelle Rhee? How can you support Rhee after reading Kane?

How can "reformers" support Duncan's RttT proposals after reading the overhwelming cases by social scientists that growth models aren't valid for evaluations of individual teachers? In fact, how can you respect the position of "reformers" that classroom instruction can close the Achievement Gap given the vast body of social science to the contrary - not to mention the practical wisdom of an equally large majority of teachers? And in fact, given the increasing body of cognitive research, shouldn't you reconsider your position in the debate with Valerie Strauss on the value of studying Obama's speech?

We can't chop up learning into measurable pieces. Learning, at minimum, requires the whole human being. Schooling is a social process.

I'd compare the last decade in education with the situation in the early 70s when the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and more disreputable Rightwing thinktanks emerged to challenge the Liberal Establishment. Eventually, some reputable thinktanks emerged, but many still publish politicized "research."

Similarly, "reformers" at the Ed Sector produce reputable research, for instance. But the stuff published by the Ed Trust, the New Teacher Project, McKinsey, and others are politicized down to the commas, asterisks, and footnotes (what few that are included)

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 10, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the attention on this issue. Where is the Post's comment on the decision to kill the D.C. charter program which the Education Department's chief evaluator, Patrick Wolf, called "the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's education research arm so far"? Maybe I missed it, but I thought the killing of this program would be big news in the education section at least. If anything this shows how nakedly beholden pols typically are to favored interest groups evidence be damned. Congress said they would continue the program if the District wanted to and it showed positive results. Both criteria were satisfied yet the program was left without funding anyway. I would have thought this would generate no small measure of local outrage.

Posted by: jmcdavisum | September 10, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

So John what are you saying; ignore the evidence that gaps can be and are being in some instances closed because that contradicts the dominant paradigms of social science and the majority of teachers?

I assume you believe that the problem starts and is perpetuated at home and there is precious little that can be expected of schools when confronted by such high hurdles. Well then what would that body of thought and professional practical wisdom suggest? Should schools wait until poverty disappears?

Obviously education policy by itself cannot fix poverty. It will be an immensely complex process with innumerable different forces at work, but I think its hard to argue that education policy does not have an essential role to play. I cannot see any good reason to not support innovative solutions that are bearing fruit.

Posted by: jmcdavisum | September 10, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm saying that we should stop the unforced errors. I'm glad you accepted my characterization of the problem. We should show some modesty regarding theory that "contradicts the dominant paradigms of social science and the majority of teachers."

Don't try to claim the high road for "reform." Before you experiment on children, accept the burden of proof. The simplistic hypotheses that grew out of NCLB caused real damage to real kids. Students aren't mice and should not be exposed to half-cocked efforts at social engineering.

If "reformers" sought the greater good for the greater number, and I think they did, then they should have learned more about the field of eduucation before trying to impose their preferences on the rest of the country. And they should have been less willing to replace the methods and ethics of peer review with the political methods of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove - the nonstop attacks on their oppenents.

Look at the reports of the TNTP and McKinsey. They are just infomercials.

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 10, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

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