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Deconstructing a Social Keiretsu (V): Publishing Power, Persuasion and Propaganda

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In past posts I've examined the relationships among a group of people and organizations favoring market-based approaches to school reform - a "social keiretsu." I've covered board membership, financial ties and conference organization. I've done my best to present the facts and let readers decide just how related these institutions and individuals are - and whether it matters.

Today's post is about relationships in writing and publication.

Publications matter to policy debate. They are not dispositive, nor are they sufficient to win the day, but they are necessary. Ideas count in something as abstract as policy. Writing is the principal means by which abstract policy concepts are made concrete and disseminated. The quality of facts, analysis and writing matters, but quantity and presentation have qualities of their own in any persuasive activity. Repetition, the selection of spokespersons and the appearance of widespread agreement are at least as important as evidence and logic - maybe more important.

If you want to see your policy views in print, you have several options. You can write in or for a magazine or newspaper, but that’s no way to be in the media frequently. You can hold press conference, but you can't be sure who will show up - or control your message. You can start a blog and post to it. Better yet, find a host like edweek.org for “added credibility." You can hire writers to make your case and distribute the results. To stay in the public eye you need to buy your own printing press, hire a good communications director, and publish, publish, publish. It also helps if you can find others who will repeat and reinforce your message in their own writing.

The market for school reform policy writing in general, and market-based solutions in particular, is limited. Whether the form is straight reportage, commentary, full-length magazine or journal articles, reports, white papers, leaflets or blogs, the audience consists of policy wonks, policy advocates, academics and university students, and maybe k-12 administrators with an interest in reform. In a sense executive and legislative policymakers are the ultimate audience. As a practical matter they receive whatever message is intended in a digested form from their political/wonk staff. There is also a broader - possibly unintended - audience of teachers and parents interested in teaching and learning programs adopted by their district, in their school, for their classroom, or provided to their child.

Writers have an agenda, and there is nothing wrong with this. We all need motivation to write. In the school reform arena, writers intend to earn a living, document studies and events, communicate to their constituencies, reinforce a case, rebut another’s argument, persuade fence sitters, represent a point of view or interest group, and reinforce their personal or organizational status in the field.

The audience reads to learn some combination of what’s new, who and what makes sense, what holds up over time, who is writing it and why, and how it fits in the unfolding school reform discussion. The greater one’s expertise and experience, the more one brings to her reading independent of what’s on the printed page. Similarly, knowing whether two or more individuals making the same case or complimenting each other’s writing are related, unrelated, or on opposite sides of the spectrum helps readers understand the political, conceptual and factual power of an argument. The deeper inside the debate readers are, the more context they bring to their interpretations of what’s presented. Those who work inside the Washington Beltway know enough about the authors, the institutions they represent, and the outlets publishing their views to read the materials with a (hyper) critical eye. There are few people more “inside” market-based school reform than the individuals examined so far in this series.

The less one’s expertise and experience, the more one must rely on the arguments and facts presented within the four corners of the page. Those who are not wonks or live outside of Washington are more likely to review writing de novo. Granted, they may not be so jaded as to reject an argument out of hand simply because of the author, but they are also poorly informed consumers. Other things being equal, most people will give an argument from two or more independent writers or organizations more weight than the same argument presented several times by one author or organization. Not knowing that two or more individuals making the same case or complimenting each other’s writing are related, or how they are related, diminishes a reader’s capacity to discern the political, conceptual and factual power of an argument.

This is not a trivial point. We all recall that everyone in Congress who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq cited reliance on the findings of multiple countries’ intelligence services that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In fact, every country’s agency was relying on information provided by the same handful of primary sources, specifically the Iraqi National Congress, which wanted an invasion. Had that fact been known when Congress voted, the debate - and maybe - the outcome would have been different. Education is not war, but the long term impact of education decisions on lives is comparable.

Edbizbuzz readers need to decide for themselves if the individuals and organizations examined in this series offer readers the authentic reinforcement provided by the agreement of authentically independent parties, or a facsimile that should be dispelled by better disclosure.

I've built the table below to get at this matter. On the vertical axis I've identified those individuals examined in this series who write with some frequency. On the horizontal axis, I've identified the organizations examined in this series that publish with some frequency.

It's no great surprise that individuals write on their own and publish through their home organization, so these publications are not part of the analysis. The table displays how often the individuals have 1) published through one of other organizations reviewed here, or 2) co-authored writing with someone from one of these organizations over the past two years (i.e., back to February of 2006). In my view, either event signals some degree of convergence on policy. The more this happens, the more reasonable it is to assume tighter convergence of the individuals and organizations.

I doubt I have have a comprehensive, exhaustive survey. This information is not dug up easily because most participants do not post complete lists of their publications. But I do believe I've covers enough of the territory.

kpubs.jpg

Observations

It's probably no great surprise but Education Next is something of a house organ for this network. If one looks deeper into the actual publications one will see that papers written for Fordham and AEI often end up as articles in Ed Next. Moreover, if you look at the individuals in this group who do not write all that frequently, like Kim Smith or Howard Fuller, you will see that they have found Ed Next to be a hospitable source.

AEI has become a significant outlet for the members of this network who publish.

Hess, Finn and Petrilli all play important roles in Ed Next magazine's editorial decision-making and the three have made abundant use of it as a vehicle for their own opinions. They have also shared their home organizations' publishing opportunities.

Andrew Rotherham hasn't shared Ed Sector with the network, but has taken advantage of most of the other organizations as outlets.

Brian Hassel of the small for-profit writing services provider, Public Impact, has written for everyone of the institutions here, mostly as a scribe under contract.

Discussion

To understand the role of publications in the political and policy arenas of school reform, consider the response of a teacher named Kelsey to eduwonkette’s February 14 posting of a simple diagram of personal relationships across many of the organizations examined in this series. (Readers will remember that the multi-blog discussion of eduwonkette’s relatively innocuous posting prompted this edbizbuzz series.):

Kelsey: I'm very surprised by these links. I'm naive enough that I figured research was done by independent scholars. I was sometimes skeptical on scientific grounds, but now I see I should have realized the political power behind these think tanks. For people in the business, like eduwonk and Charlie Barone, maybe this is just so much old news. But even with the noted transparency, it requires a certain amount of insider knowledge and a lot of time to make these connections.

Consider as well my exchange with Andrew Rotherham about Kelsey on his website, eduwonk, and then his exchange with Kelsey.

edbizbuzz: Few making a policy argument, trying to persuade the vast middle, underline that their arguments advantage their interests or their clients, or start from the position that "what’s good for General Motors is good for the nation."

My basic point is made by Kelsey's posting on edwonkette…. [M]ost people aren't eduwonks. Unless someone like eduwonkette raises their consciousness, the good people will take all work at face value…. It's even more of a problem now that we have advocacy blogs pretending to be independent, and readily downloadable pdfs pretending to be research.

Eduwonk: Finally, to the “Kelsey” you cite, he sounds like an idiot. But that’s OK, every village needs some. Does anyone believe that university researchers are like Horace, just out there in the groves of academe seeking truth? Of course not, they get, wait for it… foundation funding, too! And they need various avenues of support, too, inside and outside of their department and university. And they also have priors based on their beliefs, training, alliances, past work etc… [T]hat’s life and people should be intelligent consumers of information from all sources….

Edbizbuzz: On whether on not Kelsey… is an idiot, I'm inclined to believe that many people who care about education and want to be involved as responsible citizens are fuzzy about the distinction between policy advocate, policy wonk, and researcher. My experience is that these folks are no more likely to question one of these types that they are their lawyer or doctor. I don't think they are stupid, I think they know they lack the capacity to argue specifics, have little choice but to defer to the experts, and are overly trusting of those who claim that status.

Eduwonk: I believe the same thing in terms of people caring and wanting to know, but I don't buy the doctor or lawyer analogy. That's because this sort of information is different, there is more pluralism in provision etc…. So I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who assume academics should be completely trusted and others not or that anyone should be trusted/not trusted based on labels, you earn that.

Eduwonk's exchange with Kelsey:

Eduwonk: I want to apologize to Kelsey, whoever you are. My response above was needlessly harsh about what seems, now that I’ve read it, an honest admission and genuine point and I regret that.

Kelsey: Thanks for the apology…. I agree, trust no one is the appropriate skepticism in education research. But, unfortunately, I'm not the only naive one out here. Teachers are being mandated to run their classrooms according to research that principals and district curriculum specialists learned about at conferences, research accepted as true. Parents, board members, and teachers read news articles about new research, and I've never heard anyone ponder the political background of the foundation doing the research.

What’s important about this exchange is not that Andy Rotherham can make snide remarks, we all can and do; or that he regretted it and apologized, which was the honorable thing to do - we all know the danger of email. What’s important is that he didn’t recognize the legitimacy of Kelsey’s perspective from the start, but assumed that readers should attain an insider’s grasp of the debate. That is not only unrealistic and unreasonable, it is fundamentally elitist and anti-democratic.

I submit that the vast majority of readers are much closer to Kelsey than Rotherham. Adding that to 1) Rotherham’s admission that readers need context to appreciate what they read, 2) Kelsey’s suggestion that most readers don’t “ponder political background of the foundation doing the research”, and the 3) fact that writers are in a better position to disclose their ties than readers are to uncover their relationships and it follows that A) writers bear the burden of disclosure no less than purveyors of any other product or service, and B) the lack of full disclosure is misleading per se.

(Please note that I have always provided a full disclosure of my relationships and history on the main page – simply go to the upper right hand corner and click on “about the author.” Googling "Marc Dean Millot" will probably not yield much more dirt. I would be happy to provide a complete C.V. to anyone who asks.)


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