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Real Think Tanks Work for an Agency that Pays Their Bills

The Brookings Institution may have been America’s first “think tank,” but the phrase was coined to describe the relationship of the RAND Corporation to our nation’s nuclear weapons complex. I had the luck to be involved in both close up and personal. When I compare that experience with my subsequent involvement at RAND and other research institutions on public education policy, I see differences so vast that it is simply too much to hold the latter activities to the ideal type established in the former. In short, the organizations that Alexander Russo called think tanks don’t warrant the appellation. It's a bit like trying get consumers to accept sparkling wine as champagne, or langostino as lobster. They must perform a useful function in Washington or they would not be in business, but their function is not what led people to place the label on RAND.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two spheres is the vast difference in maturity. America’s nuclear arsenal, its design and the theories behind its virtual and potential employment are barely fifty years old; the institution of public education is over 150 years. When the term was applied to RAND in the late 1950s, the Department of Defense and especially Air Force were creating something from the ground up. Up until roughly the late Reagan Administration, there remained great scope for innovation.

One of my first jobs in the business was executive secretary to a high-level civilian working group advising the Undersecretary of Defense and the head of the Defense Nuclear Agency on weapons system design, war plans and declaratory policy. Most readers of this blog will not know these names, but among others this panel included Albert Wholstetter - a RAND mathematican whose work on the vulnerability of our 1950’s bomber force led him to coin the phrase “balance of terror;” Herman Kahn, a RAND polymath whose book Thinking the Unthinkable encapsulated years of work during the 1960’s forcing the military to consider nuclear war as something other than a single spasmodic response; Andrew Marshall, another RAND alum who formed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment and institutionalized the idea of asymmetric warfare; Leon Sloss, who, in the 1970's, oversaw the revision of American nuclear strategy away from mutual assured assured destruction; and Colin Gray, whose thinking formed the basis of decisions to pursue highly accurate warheads and the MX missile. Another member and RAND alum, Fred Hoffman, would manage the policy work behind “Star Wars." This small group literally played central advisory roles in every major decision on nuclear strategy until the Soviet collapse.

Whether what the Wizards of Armageddon produced was something to be proud of, or ashamed to admit – or both, my point is that our young nuclear arsenal was a policy vacuum. It not only drew very smart people, it could accommodate quite a few. My knowledge of education doesn’t match my acquaintance with nuclear strategy, but if I drew a similar panel across the history of American public education it might include Horace Mann; inventor of the “common school” in the 1830’s; John Dewey with his theories on experiential learning at the turn of the 19th Century; Elwood Cubberly, for his organization of schools into professionally administered districts in the early 1900s; Al Shanker, who adapted of labor unionism to the teaching force in the 1950’s; and Deborah Meier, who renewed the idea of decentralization with her work in New York schools in the 1970’s.

I’m sure others have better lists but, whatever the list, it’s the policy wonk equivalent of fantasy football. RAND was uniquely positioned by history to hold a pool of talent supplying policy ideas – the demand was virtually unlimited and the territory entirely virgin. Neither can be said of public education today. Demand is very limited, in no small part because the territory is highly developed.

Close on the heels of timing as a factor in the influence of RAND on nuclear strategy is the nature of the advisee. There was a good deal of bureaucratic politics surrounding nuclear weapons policy, but for most of the time the Air Force dominated, and multi-department debates could be resolved within the Department of Defense, or in the National Security Council. RAND’s main client, the Air Force, thought in terms of a linear relationship from strategy, logistics, operations to tactics - a method Air Force Lieutenant General and RAND luminary Glenn Kent formalized in the "strategy to tasks" methodolgy, and so did civilians in the other relevant agencies. Moreover, there was a real chain of command running from the President to the bomber pilot. Finally, the officer corps accepted that nuclear weapons required close civilian control and intervention in decisions and actions the military would not tolerate in the conventional war.

Consequently, think tank inhabitants had direct access to the top-most civilian decision makers, the ear of general officers, and an open door to every corner of the defense establishment. As a very young man working for my committee, I had clearances covering everything from nuclear weapons design, warning systems, emergency presidential communications, continuity of operations, nuclear war plans, satellite imagery, and most everything we knew about the same in Russia. I visited every weapons lab to discuss designs issues, every major emergency command center to examine observe major exercises, and spent a lot of time in “vaults” listening to competing briefings on important technical issues and debates, and pouring over well-ordered files containing formal decision memoranda and supporting documentation. Even when I left the committee to work at RAND, my project work was generally expressly for a four-star officer in a position to act on my recommendations.

The point here is not that I had an interesting job, it’s the fact that in the nuclear weapons arena, the think tank worked for decision makers who could act and who gave their advisors unlimited access. Moreover, for most of my career in nuclear strategy, it was literally possible to know most everything about the field and most everyone in it.

None of this is true in public education. Political scientists call it a “loosely coupled” system for good reason. There is no decision maker or principal agency. Power is divided between the feds and the states, sometimes between governors and chief state school officers, between states and districts, and often within school boards, between districts and schools, and between teachers unions and management. The culture of these agencies engenders political expediency and saticficing. While the word “strategy” appears in gold lettering on office doors up and down the Pentagon’s corridors – in the Department of Education the word is found with frequency only in the speechwriter’s hard drive. The size, scope and decentralization of public education – to say nothing of the lack of good records, and the lack of a formal process for resolving technical disputes, make it impossible for any advisor to know everything or everyone important in the system.

Another way to understand the relative receptivity of the Departments of Defense and Education to the think tank is to consider the nature of the institution’s work. Federal departments and agencies tend to three kinds of decisions and action: Politics – problems that affect the efforts of politicians and parties to gain and remain in office; administration, the routine implementation and enforcement of laws passed by Congress; and policy – the discretion the executive has to set directions in the public interest. Every agency works in all three, but the mix differs. The Department of Veterans Affairs is almost entirely concerned with the administration of veteran benefits and care; the State Department is heavily weighted to policy decisions about our foreign relations. The Department of Defense had a particular interest in policy to harness the atomic bomb’s “end of history” potential. By contrast, at least until No Child Left Behind, and outside the very specific legal requirements of desegregation and IDEA, the Department of Education was largely about politics. As I understand it, it was formed from HEW by President Carter to carry through on a campaign promise by Jimmy Carter to the teachers unions. Until No Child Left Behind it would be very hard to call the Department’s administration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and especially Title I, “enforcement.” Regulation of that law was better characterized as a matter of negotiation between the federal government and states thought to have a kind of sovereignty over education under the Tenth Amendment. There is all kinds of room in the Department for political advice on public education, but not for the kind of technocratic expertise offered by RAND to the Air Force.

The strategic mindset of the national security establishment and the primacy of policy decisions in the development of the nuclear arsenal - and the lack of either in public education made for substantial differences in how the two Departments have exercised the power of the state in the formulation and implementation of public policy, and the extent to which they are able to make use of think tank expertise. One definition of the state involves a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In the United States this is certainly true of nuclear weaponry. The federal government has a monopoly on use and a monopsony on acquisition. The evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy involved the calibration of supply and demand, and the think tank played a role in consciously ratcheting up both. The committee I work for influenced the demand for nuclear weapons by advising on strategy, which implied particular war plans and defined weapons systems specifications. It influenced the supply of nuclear weapons with its understanding of technical improvements from ongoing testing and development, which suggested weapons characteristics making certain kinds of military operations possible, and so certain national war plans and strategies plausible.

For all practical purposes “government” has a monopoly on the supply of public education and a monopsony on the purchase of teaching and learning materials. As noted, the monopoly power is highly disaggregated and the local monopolies have not excercised their monopsony power to specify purchasing requirements outside the politicized textbook adoption process. Arguably the federal government acquired a geometric increase in power over both supply and demand in 2001 with No Child Left Behind. The Department of Education did spend enormous energy gaining control of the demand for effective educational programs through the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, although I don't think any official would understand that's what the Department was doing. However, the Department failed to exploit its power by shaping supply through NCLB’s Scientifically Based Research provisions. Indeed, it showed every sign of wanting to pretend it had no such power. Throughout the Bush Presidency, the Department simply lacked the intellectual mindset, will and capacity to attract or use the kind of intellectual power available to government in nuclear strategy. To be fair, nothing in its history prepared the Department to employ the new law effectively.

Finally, RAND worked for the government; government sought the advice and paid RAND’s bills. I had a kind of “right” to wander the halls of the Pentagon, dropping in on people who may or may not have been important to the particular project I was working on. After fifty years of relationships between Air Force officers and RAND staff, I was more likely to be viewed as “one of us” than an outsider. For a time, at the behest of lieutenant colonels staffing the strategy shop in the Office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, I facilitated a RAND seminar on deterrence thinking in the tiny conference room of their small suite. Colonels might not have been as cooperative as they could be when I was engaged in a review of their operations, but when they became general officers, they wanted RAND to engage the next wave of colonels.

While the Department of Education does have contracts with RAND, it has never given the staff anything close to the frequent, direct access to decision makers, or the right to examine operations the Air Force and Defense Department granted. I'm not even sure RAND staff wanted it. During my tenure, one telling consequence was reflected in how I and my colleagues referred to those who paid the bills. The Air Force was a “client,” the Department of Education a “sponsor.” With the Air Force, there was substantial value-added provided in the form of advice and problem-solving that never made it into a final report. With the Department of Education, the objective was a study for publication and a paper for academia. The first was about a partnership; the second, work-made-for-hire.

This is not a trivial matter. To the best of my knowledge the Department of Education has no institutional relationship to any research institution like that between RAND and the Air Force. On reflection, the relationship of the management consulting groups mentioned yesterday to their corporate clients bears a much stronger relationship to the ties between RAND and the Air Force than any education think tank and the Department of Education - or any other government institution in Washington. The organizations we call “think tanks” in public education – especially in policy – are not in the Department’s employ. Their senior staff may have friends in high places, but to most of the bureaucracy most of the time, they are “them” not “us.” They have no institutional right to be wandering the halls at the Department of Education, burrowing into planning activities, offering advice on an ongoing basis across a broad array of technical topics. I cannot imagine holding a seminar on federal education policy for civil servants in the Department of Education - I don't know of an office there where the staff might find the connection of theory to their practice so important that they would be willing to make the time to be present for a morning every month. And so even though it is impossible to know everything, the self-styled education “think tanker” is even less attuned to the system’s work and less able to take advantage of various opportunities to effect change throughout the bureaucracy than she would be otherwise.

If the education think tank does not work for the Department of Education as the original think tank worked for the Department of Defense, it is not likely to have much of an impact on federal education policy. This is even more true because of all the other differences noted between education and nuclear weapons policy.

By the standard RAND set with the Air Force in nuclear weapons policy, there are no education "think tanks." Indeed, use of the term diverts attention from their real function. Philanthropy pays the bills of the organizations we’re calling education think tanks, and it's that relationship we need to give focus. If the old education “think tanks" are thriving as ubberblogger Russo points out, it’s because they are meeting their patrons’ needs. If new ones are being formed, it’s because other would-be patrons have needs that the present group hasn’t met. What are those needs, how are they being met by the "not think tanks," and what should we call them instead?

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