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It's a Small World After All

What should we make of the growing number of education policy think tanks and education reform/advocacy organizations? Weeks ago, A-Rus asked, and Dean Millot answered.

All of this chatter made me wonder how these organizations are connected. After all, there are a lot of them, and many of them are advancing similar reform proposals. Are these a million different points of light, or multiple organizational outposts for a small group of people?

To answer this question, I looked up the Boards of Directors, Advisory Boards, and senior staff of 16 big ticket education policy think tanks and advocacy organizations. The list is not comprehensive – for example, I did not include the large multipurpose tanks such as Brookings, Center on American Progress, Cato, etc. On the ed policy side, this is a work in progress, so please send me a list of other organizations you’d like to see included. (Also, if you notice an error of omission/commission in the graph, please let me know.)

I looked for “interlocking directorates” – in simple terms, I drew a line between the two organizations if:

a) two organizations share a board member, or

b) two organizations both include a board member representing the same organization (i.e. two different people representing the same foundation), or

c) a senior staff member from Organization A serves on the board of Organization B

The thumbnail image, which you should click on to enlarge, displays the relationships between the following organizations:

* Achieve
* Alliance for Excellent Education (Alliance)
* Broad Prize
* Center on Education Policy (CEP)
* Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights (CCCR)
* Ed Next
* Ed Sector
* Ed Trust
* Fordham
* National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS)
* National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ)
* New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS)
* New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF)
* New Teacher Project (NTP)
* Teach for America (TFA)

The education policy/advocacy world represented here looks a lot like a tangled spiderweb. Let me give a few examples. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) shares members with 10 of these organizations. Their board includes Jonathan Williams (Accelerated Charter School of Los Angeles), who also sits on the Education Sector board; Bruno Manno (Vice Chair, Annie E. Casey Foundation), who also sits on the Ed Sector board as well as the Fordham board; Mashea Ashton (of New Leaders for New Schools); Mike Feinberg (KIPP); Checker Finn, who also sits on the boards of Fordham and the National Council for Teacher Quality, and serves as the Senior Editor of Education Next; Ted Mitchell of the New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF is also represented on the Ed Sector board); Chris Nelson of the Don and Doris Fisher Fund, which is also represented on the Teach for America and KIPP boards; Andy Rotherham, who sits on the boards of Education Sector, the National Council for Teacher Quality, and served on the Broad Prize Selection Committee.

Education Trust trades with the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights (CCCR) (George Mason’s Roger Wilkins), the Center on Education Policy (UT-Austin’s Arturo Pacheco), the New Teacher Project (Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock), the Alliance for Excellent Education (Ed Trust’s Heather Peske sits on one of their advisory boards), and the Broad Prize Selection Committee (Ed Trust’s Russlyn Ali).

What does it mean? Some would contend that a small group of people are running the education policy show. Others would argue this type of coordination is no different than in Fortune 500 companies, where board interlocks are common. Moreover, they might argue that interlocks, particularly in the case of service providing organizations, serve a useful purpose. Still others might note that this is simply a picture that observers should have in the back of their head when they listen to education policy debates and evaluate the claims made by these groups, i.e. can a think tank claim to be an independent evaluator given these interlocks?

What do you think?

Very interesting spider web you've constructed here.

What's troubling about these connections is the degree to which these organizations serve as echo chambers for each other. One can be sure that whatever comes out of one of these organizations will be hyped to the skies by its friends elsewhere.

Each of these organizations compromises itself when it cites supporting evidence and opinions from elsewhere, without acknowledging being in bed with staff and board members from "elsewhere." This situation leaves open the very real possibility of politicizing research and analysis because we wind up with advocacy and mutual back scratching in place of independent (and independently verified) research.


While not altogether surprising, these organizations are much more interlocked than even I had imagined.

Interlocking boards are not uncommon at all in the corporate world, so perhaps we shouldn't be that alarmed about the extent of overlap in the edpolicy community.

On the other hand, I see two major reasons for concern.

First, 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.

Second, the "indpendent analysis" of policy organizations such as Ed Sector or Ed Next really should not be considered "independent" at all. What kind of independent "analysis" should we expect of policies promoted by the very people who sit on these organizations' boards?

I see one way where the corporate analogy breaks down. Corporate boards avoid (or at least are expected to avoid) certain conflicts of interest. Just as we would prefer not to see a corporation's auditors sitting on its board of directors, or directors of a diagnostic lab on the board of a pharmaceutical company whose drug it is evaluating, it makes little sense to accept "independent" analysis from an organization whose policies under consideration are promoted by its own directors.

Well done, eduwonkette!

If you sit on boards, do you have to go to work?

It's a great chart, Eduwonkette. Nice research. But you know what struck me the most? These people and their organizations all have a great deal of transparency. We know who funds them, who advises them (and who doesn't). There is a world of difference between say, Checker Finn and Roger Wilkins, like 180 degrees. So that fact that they ravel in some of the same circles when it comes to education policy may say something other than what you're implying.

Which brings me to Eduwonkette and all the commenters on this post, and almost every commenter on your whole site. We have no idea who they are, who funds them, what stake they have in any particular fight, politically, financially, or otherwise.

Your choice. But I don't think transparency is your, or your fans', best argument. We used to call it "leading with your chin" back in my boxing days.

Your friend, and valentine,

--- Charlie

Charlie - isn't there a pretty big difference between those who write and post comments to blogs, and those who provide leadership and funding to organizations that push states, school districts, and Congress to make serious changes to their education policies?

I'd like to think as an anonymous blog reader that I have the same influence as Checker Finn, but somehow I doubt it. Until then, I don't think we need to be too concerned about "outing" Eduwonkette's readers.

...and how many of these organizations were started using federal funds?

Propaganda was a big part of NCLB.

Ette fan - (may I call you "ef" for short?) - no one can ever answer your question. Why do you choose to be anonymous? For all we know, you're Reg Weaver. We don't know where Eduwonkette, or Skoolboy, or any of the other ubiquitous characters here get their money or what their stake is in the policy game. We know what everyone else on the chart's is. more or less. If you don't get the paradox, I'd never be able to explain it to you.

Kathy - I disagree with you. The big part of NCLB was people visiting high-poverty schools and too often seeing very little learning going on. And having friends and family who are teachers who are forced to teach in areas where they have no background or preparation. Note that you never seen the law quoted on this blog. Not much data either, despite the social science heading. Only hyberbolic impressions.

But congratulations for being one of the few people on this blog to have the strength of your own convictions to associate your opinions with you actual name.

Eduwonkette suggested my posts on education think tanks and social entrepreneurs at www.edbizbuzz.com played a role in this post. Bravo!

It's very easy to find out who I am, how I'm funded, and what stakes I have in this discussion. Go to www.edbizbuzz.com and click on about the author, or just Google me.

I have no idea who eduwonkette is, but unless what she is pointing out is unverifiable, I'm having a hard time figuring out how her anonymity bears on this discussion. It strikes me as an irrelevant rhetorical distraction - a good debating tactic, but a substantive non sequitor. Maybe it's just the lawyer in me.

Assume the worst, that she (or I suppose even he) has reason to hate everyone on her list and wants to see them discredited. Lat's say her intent is to cause the members' embarrassment, and undermine their credibility in the eyes of others.

If she does so by bringing facts to light, her motivation and intent do not taint the evidence. She may be "responsible" for the conclusions others draw from the evidence in the sense that if she had not it brought to anyone's attention, the discredited might not be embarrassed right now. But is it not more correct to say that the facts are responsible, rather than the delivery girl.

Moreover, there is a huge difference between A) one anonymous writer questioning the means by which a point of view is pushed in Washington or a group of people is given reasonably well-compensated employment, and B) - if what she says is correct - a group of individuals and organizations that appear to be independent, but are in fact what any good MBA, political consultant,or social scientist might recognize as a kind of strategic alliance.

Modern business theory has shown us the enterprise can be thought of as a continuum of relationships from intra-company ownership to joint sales arrangements. Campaign consultants might recognize linked organizations sharing the same or very similar objects acting in a coordinated fashion to push some policy idea or candidate. Eduwonk admits that his network is no different from others that oppose NCLB.

No doubt insiders do understand these links. Indeed, Eduwonk and others say they run even deeper than eduwonkette knows.

But if it's news to eduwonkette - presumably a close observer of this space, do others know this? Do they discount praise from someone at AEI about an article in EdNext written by someone from Fordham, based on a presentation at a conference held by New Schools funded by Walton? Do they consider these actors separate or self-reinforcing?

To appreciate the policy implications, consider the Iraq weapons of mass destruction intelligence fiasco. We are fed information from our sources in Iraq feeding us what they think we want to hear about nukes. To check out the veracity of this information, we call the Brits, French etc. They confirm that it's good information. Problem is, their original source is our original source. But we don't know this.

Education policy isnt war and peace, but the principle holds.There's value in exploring these relationships and understanding their influence on federal education policy and school reform. It's certainly a legitimate topic for academic research. It's also relevant to policymaking.

Charlie - I get the "paradox." You're equating a blogwriter and people who leave comments at the bottom of posts to Reg Weaver and the power elite leading the upstanding organiziations appearing in eduwonkette's graph.

Do you think anonymous commenters get a check from the union (or some other "entrenched interest") for every comment they leave on some blog?

If so, I think someone else needs a reality check.

E.f. (Reg? Joel?) - click here:


Where you'll read among other things "Says a prominent professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, who didn't wish to have his name printed because he maintains a working relationship with the union: "The [NEA] has a lot of money for research, but it wants the conclusions to match its agenda."

and get back to me.

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.

Another interlocking directorate:
*The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education
*The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
*National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
*National Parent Teachers Association
*Illinois State Board of Education
*New York City Financial Control Board
*Democratic National Committee
*American Academy of Arts&Sciences
*National Academy of Education
*Columbia University

And that's just between Reg, Diane, and Randi!

Dean Milot says:

"But if it's news to eduwonkette - presumably a close observer of this space, do others know this? Do they discount praise from someone at AEI about an article in EdNext written by someone from Fordham, based on a presentation at a conference held by New Schools funded by Walton? Do they consider these actors separate or self-reinforcing?"

1. I do know it.

2. I'm not sure how many others do.

3. I discount praise in the echo chamber.

4. I think of these actors as mutually self-enforcing and most of the "research" they hype as advocacy in the guise of data.


Not only do unions not pay anonymous commenters on blogs, but they don't even pay us union members and activists who comment on blogs openly, with our names! Obviously, I need to start demanding cash before I write every comment...

None of the comments here or the response and comment thread at Eduwonk are surprising to me. If disclosure of funding's a good thing, it's a good thing. (By the way, for those wondering about Eduwonkette and anonymous blogging, my guess is that if she gets any money from this gig, it's probably from EdWeek. Is that enough disclosure?)

Arturo Pacheco is not at UT-Austin, but rather at UT-El Paso.

I have long been suspicious of the "research" that isolates "teacher quality" as the one indicator of student success. What do you suppose the motivation would be for a group of wealthy, powerful, non-educators to create a web of power that distracts the public from the economic/social policies that define and divide the populace? While effective teaching certainly does beget quality learning, is it really the teachers of our country that are responsible for the state of our society? I think we are the target/distraction of the day. We're an easy target for legislation that undermines our ability to be professional, effective and successful. I worry about the state of public education as the truly passionate members of the teaching profession plan their escape and the young ones coming up face the reality that is being orchestrated by this web of power. This time around the segregation in our public school system will likely be based on economics rather than race.

Certainly the amount of research that went into the development of this web is to be lauded--but there is a next step needed to determine: what does it all mean? (BTW--I note that AIR is off in a corner, all by itself, not linked to any of the others). Is there an active (or unconscious) conspiracy of some particular viewpoint that soaks up all the available research dollars and bends them to their will? That still doesn't make it bad research--more likely just defines what will and will not get researched. Or is educational research such a small niche that it is peopled by a relatively small group of folks?

Personally, I am enough of a novice that I am far less interested in who stands up and salutes a study than what it contains. Certainly the downside of peer review has always had elements of incestuousness, in any field. On the one hand, without peer review, validity is lacking, on the other, the "field" (any field) tends to get chummy with itself insulate against challenging new ideas. Looking closer at the existing web might reveal some collegial ongoing dialogue--which is the balance that I think is always sought.

Sorry, I just relooked--it's Achieve that stands alone, not AIR.

Just wondering how many connections you would see if you looked at the organizations who fund these places....

or the ones who take $$ from the NEA: http://www.eiaonline.com/archives/20080122.htm

It takes money to get things done, period.

There's also a new Crooked Timber entry on the sociology of think tanks...

Dean made the best contribution to this debate because he showed what we should be trying to build.

He wrote: "But what differentiates a RAND from an individual researcher, or a typical DC policy (advocacy) shop is the review process and the body of institutional knowledge. In the last two, the individual dominates the quality control process. Put the individual researcher or policy shop head in a RAND research project, and the product is different - more credible. Why? Because RAND's institutional interests in a long term reputation for objectivity across all potential research sponsors, and the culture and capacity of many different analysts to check and balance their colleagues, checks that research in ways that simply don't occur in work-for-hire from a consultant or research from a think tank that's aligned itself with a particular point of view. No single sponsor is more important to RAND than its reputation."

I loved two things about his comments. Firstly, it was even more wordy than my posts. Secondly, and seriously, it sets a goal for us to emulate in these conversations.

I was happy to see at least one think tank not in the education think tank incest hoe down. Go Achieve!

Ummm, this is what you learn in PubPol 101 at your basic college.

It would be really surprising if there were no relationships between these organizations. But shock! people in the education world know each other and have common interests!

Duh, thanks for dutifully copying over eduwonk's empty "people know each other" claim.

Lobbyists and politicians "know each other," but that doesn't stop us from working to put in place institutions that try to prevent these relationships from acting against the public interest.

Enron and its accountants "knew each other" so well that its auditors failed to come forward and prevent a financial catastrophe for thousands of families and shareholders.

Think about enrolling in PubPol 102 in college next time!

P.S. My examples above were not intended to equate, say, Education Trust with Enron, or the Fordham Foundation with (shudder) Congress.

Rather, they are meant to illustrate that relationships do matter. The public's trust in its institutions is predicated in part on the separation of certain interested parties.

A better analogy might be the recent student loan debacle. We shouldn't be surprsied 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.

Here's something scary: The people who work for the Red Cross, gasp, know donors who give money to the organization. And scary...people who have kids in my kids' school know the teachers, the principal, and some know the school board. AND they know people who sometimes help out the schools with donations of equipment. Holey=moley Batman. Do you sense a local conspiracy here?

Here's something: the Iron Triangle. It's a public policy theory that's been around for decades and says what Eduwonkette says. She's got a firm grasp of the obvious, don't you think?

Sigh... why bother? Do you really think the fluid relationships between congressmen and lobbying firms, or between university financial aid offices and lenders are really equivalent to relationships between "people in my kids' school" and their teachers and school board members? I don't really see the compelling policy interest in these cases, nor the presumption of arms length.

Of course, as Eduwonk might say, there's no such thing as bad instiutions, just bad people. So perhaps we should just scrap all of these pesky conflict of interest rules, campaign finance laws, and the like, and just let the good people do their good work.

Keep the laws. They are important. But stop interpreting every web of relationships as some kind of evil empire.

There are good relationships and bad relationships. But the trouble isn't that there are relationships. In fact, interactions between groups with common interests are a big resource in the work to improve schools. Or, a big impediment.

If this was a careful analysis rather than a hyperbolic, headline grabbing revelation, it would offer some tools for evaluating the quality of the relationship. Because that's really the problem here, isn't it? As I said before, this blogger isn't that nuanced or sophisticated in her thinking.

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.

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.

Interesting theoretically, but on a practical level, does anyone think that members of the Board of Directors of these non-profits are actually "directing" anything? They meet once or twice a year, half of the members don't show up, and those who do rubber stamp the proposals of the staff, because the staff know 10 times as much as the board members about the issue under consideration. The strategic alliance/echo chamber issue is an interesting one, but names on a list of BoD members is not the meaningful metric. You might as well compare the similarity of the font on these organizations' letterhead.

Only two sides...

Theoretically... it's vaguely amusing that they just don't use the same board of directors for all of them.

There are people on the side of the teachers and the kids who think each one of these organizations deserves to be judged on its own merits.

They are mistaken.

I enjoyed reading these comments. Thanks, eduwonkette et al.

Anon, 4:18: You say: "You can't even get in the game unless you run in the right circles."

Which brings to mind that many people make their career connections even before they make their careers. Their networks begin at college, particularly the Ivy-league ones. In fact, that's why the price of these schools can get so high, because everyone knows that you're paying for the opportunities to make those embryonic networks that can serve you later on.

I don't know enough about the corporate world in education to give an example, but Naomi Klein's book Shock Doctrine shows how extensively people from the same school (Economics at the U. of Chicago) got into positions to control economic and financial agendas not only nationally but worldwide.

The only way to keep this kind of über-think under control, I think, is to make sure that public education remains in public hands, and public monitoring structures remain firmly in place.

So maybe this is why I have a hard time remembering which of their blogs is which...

More to add to the web.... Achieve is a partnership of Fordham and the Education Trust. It's also aligned with the National Association of Governors (and they do some parallel research with ACT, as well, who also are aligned with the NAG). More tangles....

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Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • FROM MR. ANDERSON SANCO.: Dear Sir / Madam, I am MR. Anderson Sanco, Director read more
  • Lindaak: More to add to the web.... Achieve is a partnership read more
  • Rachel: So maybe this is why I have a hard time read more
  • woodlass: I enjoyed reading these comments. Thanks, eduwonkette et al. Anon, read more
  • Jonathan: Only two sides... Theoretically... it's vaguely amusing that they just read more




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