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Breaking News: Readers Everywhere are Yawning!

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I’ve never seen wonks so hot under the collar about something so obvious! Between here and eduwonk, we’re ~60 comments deep on my yawn of a post about interlocking directorates.

Had I plotted webs of union relationships, commenters like “duh” - who wrote, “Stop interpreting every web of relationships as some kind of evil empire” – would have me canonized. Consider this post at EIA, or how much was made of NEA’s contribution to Fair Test. If those relationships are important to uncover, so are these.

Let me take a preliminary swing at the “So What?” question:

In my view, what’s emerging is a new education policymaking configuration. This is not simply the well-researched “policy network” eduwonk writes about, but one that includes quasi-academic publications, service providers, and policy research/advocacy organizations, with a small group of foundations providing financial support to many network members. It is the overlap between different spheres – press, service providing, research, and philanthropists with deep pockets – that makes this network unique and important to watch. Readers did a bang up job of identifying the reasons we should care:

1) The Trouble with Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: As Policy Prof. wrote, “these organizations often give the impression of a grassroots groundswell of support for radical change in education. That may well be true, but this "small world" of interlocking advocacy groups should hardly be taken as evidence of this.” Dean Millot commented that the network can be understood as a strategic alliance, and observers of education policy making should recognize it as such. (Check out all of his comments on this debate here and here.) eduwonk is correct that there's nothing inherently sinister about these relationships, and I agree so long as we call it what it is - an alliance.

2) The Insider/Outsider Problem: Dean noted that “policy marketing shops are generally trying to create the impression of disinterested parties purely interested in the public interest.” Readers pointed out that it’s hard to distinguish policy research from policy advocacy when you’re not on the inside. For example, Kelsey, who may be the only blogospheric person to whom eduwonk has ever apologized, wrote, “Even with the noted transparency, it requires a certain amount of insider knowledge and a lot of time to make these connections.” Reader “duh, duh” likened this problem to the student loan issue, writing:

We shouldn't be surprised that college loan office personnel and lending companies "know each other." They have worked closely together for years, and one could charitably argue that they are both interested in seeing students get a good loan package at a low rate. But how can the public be assured of this? Not surprisingly, parents and students were outraged by the revelation of these close ties.

3) The Effect on Public Discourse: Readers noted the potential for a small reinforcing group to dominate the ed reform debate. As Dean wrote over at eduwonk, “We’re left with an unhealthy narrowing of public discourse in each group and across the spectrum.” Taking on the issue of democratic engagement and trust from a different perspective, reader “duh, duh” explained, “Relationships do matter. The public’s trust in its institutions is predicated in part on the separation of certain interested parties.”

In terms of organizational disclosure, eduwonk asks for specific suggestions for improving transparency. My view is that journalists are the ones who’ve dropped the ball here – after all, all of this information is available on these organizations’ websites and the key funders can be identified from their tax forms. Nonetheless, here are three easy ones: 1) Board biographies should include all of the other boards on which members sit, 2) Organizations’ 990 forms should be available on their websites, and 3) The specific amounts granted by each foundation should be listed prominently on their “about our funders” pages.

The larger issue is whether we should broaden conceptions of conflicts of interest to include not only material, but ideological, conflicts - readers, we need you to weigh in here.

Thank you to all of the readers who took the time to comment. The debate’s not over yet, folks - I’ll continue to explore this issue this week.
14 Comments

This would be a much more interesting debate if someone could point to actual policy that was influenced by these relationships rather than just identifying connections between organizations and people who know each other. I'm reminded of the disproportionate attention paid to the conflicts between blacks and jews, two relatively small minorities, which deflects attention from the much larger issues of racism and antisemitism embedded in the majority. Despite all of the education "reform" analyzed and/or advocated by these organizations, on the ground our education system has changed very little. For instance, despite NCLB very few failing schools have closed, very few vouchers programs exist, very few students attend charter schools, very few districts have implemented performance pay, etc. The one place I've seen consensus emerge has been around the need for accountability and focus on closing the achievement gap (however one wants to define that) which resulted in NCLB. Beyond that important step, not much to write home about yet. I suppose one could argue that reformers need to keep pushing at the margins until a tipping point is reached and the education equilibrium we've experienced for at least the last 30 years is punctuated. The links among the edutelligentsia may push reforms in a particular direction. But a lot of much more powerful players would need to follow, e.g., Congress and state legislatures and unions for instance.

thoughtful and level-headed discussion as usual, eduwonkette! it is clear that andywonk hasn't slept since your first take on this last week. thanks for not following in the new ed policy lockstep tradition and keep up the good work

To Gideon, re: "if someone could point to actual policy that was influenced by these relationships."

Please start with my "Second" point here: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2008/02/reflections_on_the_edbizbuzzed.html#more

The issue of ideological conflicts of interest is interesting, but it's hard to see how we could operationalize it. After all, most people think that the policies they champion, and the underlying values and ideological principles, are in the best interests of all kids -- even though there are bitter disagreements over whether a particular ideology or policy position (neoliberalism, anyone?) actually is. Under these circumstances, what's an ideological conflict of interest?

But I did want to add another disclosure/transparency issue. There are instances of foundation program officers serving as trustees or board members for an organization the foundation funds. (A couple of examples: Hewlett Foundation and Ed Sector; Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ed Sector and Fordham). Is this a good idea? Even if it's vetted by the foundation's conflict of interest policy, I don't think it's likely to be good either for the foundation or for the organization. Wouldn't "arm's length" be better?

Couldn't figure out which blog to post this on (given Edbisbuzz's charge to just post somewhere), I feel the need to point out a little something. A big difference between the NEA, NBPTS, NCATE, etc. (on the one hand) and EdSector, EdTrust, and Fordham (on the other hand) is that the first group are actually membership organizations. Whether you agree or not with how well those democracies work, that's what they were set up to be. EdSec, EdTrust, etc., are some smart people who got some funders to support them. I think it's an important distinction, especially in the realm of policy, since something coming out of NEA or NCATE is at least suppose to represent the interests of their members, whereas something coming out of EdSec, etc., represents the interests of one or more policywonks and a funder with an agenda.

How do we know Eduwonkette isn't the communications director for American Heritage Academies? Or in some other relationship with some edu-outfit? Perhaps this posting is all some red herring to advance some nefarious policy scheme like renaming ketchup as a vegetable....

These types of relationships do matter. Just look at Texas. All of the state policies are decided by a small handful of people. they select representatives from think tanks and academia to come present in a way that supports their preconceived notions of what is the best policy.

Yet, those making the decisions have connections to companies and think tanks who then make millions of dollars from the policy decision. Even more egregious is that they then hand-pick the evaluators based on the knowledge that the evaluators will come back with the "right" conclusion.

You can't even get in the game unless you run in the right circles. Public input has been thwarted because the policy making committees are funded by private institutions, so open meeting laws do not even apply. Even in the legislature, public input is relegated to a 1 -2 minute speech after the invited guests have rambled on for hours. of course, only one or two legislators even stay to listen to the public an those that do don't really listen.

Now this all is not quite the same web as eduwonkette created because there are not that many think tanks in Texas, but the people from the think tanks (some of which are in the wonkette web) do play a major role and do all connect in ways that result and a consensus about what is the right policy when real educators have no input at all.

eduwonkette is onto something important. These groups--ostensibly of different political persuasions--share a common policy agenda. They support charter schools, deprofessionalization of teaching, choice, merit pay, and similar business-oriented "reforms." Whatever Eli Broad wants, Bill Gates and Eli Broad pay for. No wonder they are all entangled. Thanks, eduwonkette!

Psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which one attributes to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted subconscious impulses/desires without letting the ego recognize them.

The theory was developed by Sigmund Freud and further refined by his daughter Anna Freud, and for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as "Freudian Projection"

According to Corey Mixon, projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one "projects" one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else.

To understand the process, consider a person in a couple who has thoughts of infidelity. Instead of dealing with these undesirable thoughts consciously, he or she subconsciously projects these feelings onto the other person, and begins to think that the other has thoughts of infidelity and may be having an affair. In this sense, projection is related to denial, arguably the only defense mechanism that is more primitive than projection.

Those who project deny a part of themselves that may otherwise come to the surface. In this case, they cannot face their own feelings of infidelity and therefore project them onto the other person.

Peter Gay describes it as "the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable—too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous—by attributing them to another."

The concept was anticipated by Friedrich Nietzsche:

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."

It is evident from the above post that Eduwonkette is clearly the inner gorilla gazing from the abyss into sigmund's soul. The real question is: why is sigmund (and perhaps many of the interlinked organizations) feeling so guilty and what is he (they) really in denial of? For more insight into this provocative question, stay tuned!!!!

What the heck is sigmund talking about? Someone apparently has way too much time on his/her hands.

"if someone could point to actual policy that was influenced by these relationships."

You might take a look at the results in NYC and it's satellites, Baltimore and Washington.

Consider the view of think tanks on the part of many classroom teachers in NYC: Spend a career in an urban classroom teaching, organize with teachers to change the union, ally with parents and community to influence policy. Do that for 20 or more years where you get to see former students grow up.

The gap between people who make ed policy from think tanks and teachers - the people who actually have to execute ed policy - is way beyond vast.

Hi eduwonkette and everyone. Here are a couple of my thoughts that I hope will contribute to the discussion:

1. The "graph" and "research" that eduwonkette conducted is a simple Social Network Analysis. It is a very simple social network analysis actually. The basic method is to see who is connected to who.

2. While eduwonkette's graph is interesting to see the web of relationships between organizations, there is no way from her "research" to imply some kind of outcome because she didn't measure any outcomes. We can't say the network results in a narrow policy agenda or other kinds of sinister outcomes as implied by many on these posts. We can ask questions, but it is irresponsible to ASSUME that these organizations are some kind of sinister alliance of evil.

3. Relationships matter, as eduwonkette suggests. BUT, everyone should realize that relationships exist everywhere. If I did a social network analysis of charter school organizations (one of the projects I am working on) we will see that certain folks all know each other... if we did a graph on people's friendships, we'd find that certain people all know each other... if we did an analysis of which education blogs refer to each other, we'd find that eduwonkette or eduwonk both roll in particular circles... so in the end, knowing that major organizations are connected is not that revolutionary of a finding. Let's keep this in perspective!

I think examining the relationships between education stakeholders is an interesting way to go... so I encourage you eduwonkette to continue this line of thought (social network analysis).

This could all have something to do with the "marketing" of particular pedagogical approaches at professional development meetings. Teachers know well that when you go to a PD, you are not encouraged to question or modify the proposed package. It is presented as though it were truth, and you are supposed to buy it and apply it.

If such policies and approaches were not "products" but rather ideas open to discussion, professional development would be much more professional. Instead, we have salespeople pushing a copyrighted, trademarked, packaged agenda. That would be inadmissible if it were one lone organization trying to sell something. When they work in concert, people start assuming that that's just the way things are--you come to a PD to be told what to do, even if it doesn't strike you as correct.

Basically it comes down to intellectual dishonesty. The very folks who talk "critical thinking" are the ones to ban it. Any educational organization should have the courage and honesty to disclose its underlying philosophy and its funding, thereby placing itself in ideological and economic perspective.

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