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Guest Blogger Jeff Henig: How the Blogosphere Can Raise the Level of Public Discourse About Research

Jeff Henig is a Professor of Political Science and Education at Teachers College. He shares insights from his new book, Spin Cycle, published this month by The Russell Sage Foundation.

Public discussions about education research are often highly polarized. Advocates often wield their own studies and slam their opponents’ devious misuse of science. In my new book, Spin Cycle: How Research Is Used in Policy Debates: The Case of Charter Schools, I explore more the relationship between politics and research as it is - and as it might be.

My example: The 2004 AFT charter school report and its aftermath. The AFT report presented federal data indicating charter schools were not performing as well as traditional public schools serving similar populations. The New York Times covered it on page one (Charter Schools Trail in Results, U.S. Data Reveals.) The pro-school choice Center for Education Reform returned fire, enlisting a group of researchers to sign a full-page advertisement The New York Times ran eight days later. It read like a primer on proper methodology for conducting social science research. Rather than simply recap its pro-charter position, the Center for Education Reform took the The New York Times to task for failing to subject the AFT report to a more rigorous and skeptical review.

Was this evidence that education research had emerged from obscurity? Did it mean research coverage would observe the rules of good science, with attentive referees ready to throw flags at violations? Unfortunately, no. Ensuing rounds of give-and-take featured personalized attacks and an unwillingness to acknowledge the complexity of the phenomenon under review.

One chapter in Spin Cycle describes the media’s role in exacerbating polarization. I focus on mainstream print. The Web and blogosphere play a part, but in my story, the effects are largely negative.

Not so long ago, an article about research had to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, reviewed by outside reviewers who didn’t know the author’s identity, then revised according to the reviewers comments. It took six to twelve months from submission to final acceptance, then another nine months or more until publication. There was generally a reluctance to cite research until it had been vetted through this slow, usually meticulous peer review process.

New technologies compressed the time between initial results and public release. Researchers often feel pressure to get their results out there “now,” fearing being scooped and believing that the window of opportunity to influence policy debates is open for shorter and shorter intervals.

When speed becomes critical, processes for refining, checking, and simply deliberating about evidence can be short-circuited. But the pressure to be speedy is often manufactured: “political time” isn’t “policy time.” Politicians may clamor for instant access to new findings. But policy learning takes a slower arc. Sometimes, it makes more sense to slow down, to wait for evidence to accumulate rather than rush to judgment based on the latest study.

Don’t misunderstand me. While new technologies exacerbate the pressure to be speedy and hyper-reactive, I’m not looking to turn back the clock. Fortunately, the blogosphere has the potential to raise the level of public discourse about research in several ways the mainstream media can’t - or won’t:

1) Depth of knowledge and analysis. For journalists, education remains a relatively low- status, high-turnover beat; many who cover it lack the expertise to wrestle with quantitative studies and issues of research design. Others find it hard to convince their editors and producers to give them the time and space for greater depth.

Whether you agree with them, or they agree with one another, bloggers like Eduwonk, Edwize, edspresso, and my gracious host, eduwonkette, know what they’re talking about and are less constrained by space.

2) Breadth and context. The myth of the “killer study” — a single piece of research so strong and unassailable it sweeps the slate clean and triumphs once and for all — blinds us. Science is a collective undertaking. Enlightenment demands sifting through multiple studies conducted at different times and places, using an assortment of defensible measures and designs.

By archiving reports on earlier studies, linking discussions of new research to reports on similar topics, and adding judgment that comes from observing research debates over a number of years, education bloggers can help deflate the idea of the killer study. The education blogosphere could cultivate an atmosphere that acknowledges that, while some studies are certainly more convincing than others, we can and must learn from imperfect research. More than a “gold standard” is worthy of consideration.

3) Democratization. Many politicians, journalists, and researchers believe they must dramatically simplify discussion of evidence to find any traction. Should we shrink our expectations of democracy? Or should we hold to a high ideal of democratic decision-making and help develop a citizenry that is up to the challenge? Those aren’t easy questions. Dewy-eyed pronouncements about the natural wisdom that bubbles up from the grassroots should be greeted with healthy skepticism.

Yet democracy’s long-term health calls for raising the level of sophistication with which public issues are discussed and resolved, Fortunately, electronic media provide the open forums that can ensure that serious discussion of education research is not an elite, invitation-only event.

I agree with what you say, and particularly with the final paragraph.

Electronic forums are not in their infancy anymore, but people are getting better at them and the readership is getting broader. Maybe the blogosphere is still limited to a technically-savvy sector of the public, but I'm sure the information will fan out one way or the other.

And with newspapers cutting back reporting in specialist areas like education, bloggers who not only do the research but provide links to documentation are doing more than just contributing to open discussions. They're giving first-hand information of the field and providing research tools as well.

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