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Truthiness in Education


Many think tank reports used by lawmakers to shape education policy are little more than "junk science," authors Kevin G. Welner and Alex Molnar argue in this Education Week Commentary.

According to Welner and Molnar, the majority of research published by private think tanks uses flawed data, inappropriate methods, and draws broad conclusions that are not supported by the evidence provided. Instead of basing policy decisions on this research, Welner and Molnar encourage a more open public dialogue to steer school reform in the right direction.

What do you think? Do reports by think tanks add to the debate? Or do they exert undue influence on policymaking?


At 57 years of age, having raised 3 children and taught 2 years full time in the public schools, and a couple of years of substitute teaching, I agree that many think-tanks report to the ideology of those who pay them and that our educational "system" often gets the whole thing wrong.
For example, I remember a report on NPR some years ago about teachers in (I think) California who had developed a rather successful program of teaching and learning - what level, I cannot recall. When the gov't came in and mandated something else, a number of good teachers left - frustrated because this program that had worked for them and their students now was going to be scrapped because a new policy at the gov't levels had come down and as always the stick/carrot of funding was held over their heads to go along with what came down from administration.

We're all looking for answers on how best to educate our children - but few people who make policy listen to the people for whom these decisions are made. When policy makers rely on think tanks (I always am amused by that phrase - I visualize large containers of fish and other species when I hear that) to do their thinking for them, then it is only special interests which will profit from those policies that benefit. And a one size fits all approach - well, I'd like to see a size xxx person fit into a size 3 dress. Maybe that is why those with the money send their kids to private schools. And the rest of us go to public schools.

It would be great if these guys can figure out a way to get their criticisms the same level of media attention as the original reports. Time and again the tanks send out some talking points news releases which are not vetted. We end up with a nationwide AP release and a half dozen newspapers that have their own reporters writing essentially the same stories. It's incredible that none of them go back and look at the original research.

The issue of "what" research to use in policy making exposes a deeper issue in educational research. Too often it is not the research that is flawed but the interpretation and/or generalization made about the utility and efficacy of a particular program, strategy, or etc. A healthy dose of skepticism accompanied by a more thorough understanding of research methodology by educators and policy makers alike is essential to the construction and application of policy to ensure the learning for all mission is achieved.

Research is certainly an importrant commonent to guide educational changes, however, it is true that most research, especially reading research, that the federal government uses to determine policy is either flawed or the research is accepted becuase it goes along with NCLB policy. What is need as well is a wide range of research as well as discourse to guide educational change.

Think tank reasearch relies, all too often on statistical data . While this is a helpful tool at viewing a big picture, a wide view, it is not always realistic. Current research is fashioned to look at the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind and to gear "reforms" that can be fitted on the widest possible group of students. Literally millions of federal and state dollars are being wasted on discussion and semi-scientific study that could be used to improve conditions in underfunded, poorly equipped schools and paid to the real researchers, the teachers who are learning and developing reforms on a daily basis, as they attempt to hone their ability to reach the most students.

Regarding think tank research, it does have its place in educational and reading research. it becomes a problem when you rely only on think tank research which gives good statistical data, but does not consider the real world of how children learn in todays complex society.

"Junk Science" in education cannot be distinguished from junk science in most of the rest of our society. We just aren't much interested in "scientifically-based truth". From the "tobacco lies" to our reliance on faith-based religion, we really aren't much interested in what science says.

I've always been skeptical of Fordham's "research" on standards-based education and their shameless support of charter schools. NM has publicly touted their data that shows us in a very favorable light, while our schools are drowning in mediocrity! Thanks to Welner & Molnar for shedding light on this bogus research!

I am disturbed by a statement from editorialist Jonathan Alter in the February 12, 2007 edition of Newsweek. As an Iowa resident, can you identify the source of his statement "Education Week rated Iowa and New Hampshire as having the two least-accountable state education systems in the country". Can we obtain a copy of this article or study? Whom should we contact for this?
Our plan is to contact our State representatives regarding this study. Thank you!

I cayght a somewhat disturbing report on the Lou Dobbs Report. I do not know who was commenting or foe what organization was involved. The report was claiming that in a study done recntly, 4th and 8th grade students were testing below proficient in reading. It was either that or the report was that none of the schools tested were meeting proficiency requirements. This is one of those sound bite type of things. As a parent, I would be shocked and dismayed by such a "finding", but as an educator, I wanted more information. I wanted to know who did the "researh', who or what was studied, and what kind of data was used. I unfortunately came in on the end of the two or three minute spot and had nothing to go on. When "study" results are broadcast in this fashion by popular media, it is difficult for the average parent to make sense of the "research" and the outcomes.

for Bob--I may not be the "average parent," but from your brief description of the Lou Dobbs report, I can reasonable guess that the discussion was of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as this assesses students at the 4th and the 8th grades and reports in terms of proficiency. Their proficiency standards stand above those of most states and if memory serves, they find about 30% of students to meet their standard of proficiency. I think this would be comparable to the findings of international tests such as TIMMS or PISA.

Thank you, Margo. I think you are right on that one. It was the sound bite way it was presented that made it problematic for me. The NAEP and TIMMS are administered to sampling groups, not to all students. The proficiency standards are different from most state tests, but not necessarily higher than state standards. The grading system of below proficient, basic, proficient, and advanced has been adopted by many states.

Professors Weiner and Molnar have provided a distinct service in taking a closer look at think tank reports. I hope they continue to do so, and offer two suggestions: (1)include some examples from left of center think tanks, it is not only conservatives who make the foot fit the shoe; (2) consider some means of calling attention to really good work -- some think tank work is exemplary.

there is a current trend in our Education system today called... 'data driven decision-making'. while I agree that unbalanced

Welner and Molnar are just so typical of people who owe their own careers to the ideology that got them there. They may have thought they were being progressive when they got their start but they were mere pawns for the leftist ideologues of their time. Today they simply attack those who threaten the status quo that they have fallen into themselves. Tell me boys; how long can you stay “progressive” after you have closed your mind to new ideas? How long do you defend your new version of the status quo before we get to call you “conservative”.

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Recent Comments

  • D. Crawmer, Parent, Corporate President, Ed. reform activist, MENSAN: Welner and Molnar are just so typical of people who read more
  • Rich, School Board Director: there is a current trend in our Education system today read more
  • Gerald Sroufe, Director of Government Relations, American Educational Research Association: Professors Weiner and Molnar have provided a distinct service in read more
  • Bob: Thank you, Margo. I think you are right on that read more
  • Margo/Mom: for Bob--I may not be the "average parent," but from read more




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