Leaning Think Tanks or (More) Flawed Education Journalism?

In the spirit of good journalism, let me start with full disclosure.

I am on the Editorial Board of NEPC (you’ll see why this matters in a few paragraphs), and that means I occasionally provide blind peer review of research reviews conducted by scholars for NEPC. That entails my receiving a couple very small stipends, but I have never been directly or indirectly asked to hold any position except to base my reviews on the weight of the available evidence.

Further, since this appears important, I am not now and have never been a member of any teacher or professor union. Recently, I spoke to a local union-based conference, but charged no fee (my travel from SC to TN was covered).

Finally, I have been confronting the repeatedly poor journalism covering education and education reform for several years, notably see my recent piece, Education Journalism Deserves an F: A Reader.

My key points about the failures of journalism covering education include (i) journalists assuming objective poses, that are in fact biased, (ii) the lack of expertise among journalists about the history and research base in education, and (iii) the larger tradition in journalism to dispassionately (again a pose, but not real) present “both sides” of every issue regardless of the credibility of those sides or regardless of whether or not the issue is really binary (let’s highlight also that virtually no issue is binary).

So I remain deeply disappointed when major outlets, here Education Week, and experienced journalists, specifically Stephen Sawchuk, contribute to the worst of education reform by remaining trapped in the worst aspects of covering education.

Sawchuk’s U.S. Teacher-Prep Rules Face Heavy Criticism in Public Comments includes a common framing of “both sides” in order to address the USDOE’s new proposal to reform teacher education.

That framing pits NEPC against the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—although a number of others with stakes in the debate are listed. What is notable here is how Sawchuk chooses to characterize each; for example:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies….

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education….

Only a handful of commenters were outright supportive of the rules. At press time, a coalition of groups were preparing to submit a comment backing the proposal. The coalition’s members included: Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee; Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that supports teacher-leadership efforts; the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group; and the alternative-certification programs Teach For America and TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project.

In the U.S., labeling NEPC “left-leaning” and highlighting union affiliation is just as coded as calling Richard Sherman a thug. We all know that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is dismissive, prompting Audrey Amrein-Beardsley to ask, “Why such (biased) reporting, Sawchuk?”

Yet, Fordham supports “stronger accountability” and not a single group in the third listing has a “nudge” despite, for example, NCTQ entirely lacking credibility.

Also, NEPC has a hyperlink, but none of the others? And where is the link to the actual report from NEPC, and is there any credible evidence the report on the USDOE’s proposal is biased or flawed?

Since traditional faux-fair-and-balanced journalism continues to mislead, since we are unlikely to see a critical free press any time soon, let me, a mere blogger with 31 years of teaching experience (18 in a rural public SC high school, and the remainder in teacher education) and about twenty years of educational scholarship offer some critical clarifications.

First, here is the abstract for Kevin K. Kumashiro‘s review of Proposed 2015 Federal Teacher Preparation Regulations by the USDOE:

On December 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft of proposed new Teacher Preparation Regulations under Title II of the Higher Education Act with a call for public comments within 60 days. The proposal enumerates federally mandated but state-enforced regulations of all teacher preparation programs. Specifically, it requires states to assess and rate every teacher preparation program every year with four Performance Assessment Levels (exceptional, effective, at-risk, and low-performing), and states must provide technical assistance to “low-performing” programs. “Low-performing” institutions and programs that do not show improvement may lose state approval, state funding, and federal student financial aid. This review considers the evidentiary support for the proposed regulations and identifies seven concerns: (1) an underestimation of what could be a quite high and unnecessary cost and burden; (2) an unfounded attribution of educational inequities to individual teachers rather than to root systemic causes; (3) an improperly narrow definition of teacher classroom readiness; (4) a reliance on scientifically discredited processes of test-based accountability and value-added measures for data analysis; (5) inaccurate causal explanations that will put into place a disincentive for teachers to work in high-needs schools; (6) a restriction on the accessibility of federal student financial aid and thus a limiting of pathways into the teaching profession; and (7) an unwarranted, narrow, and harmful view of the very purposes of education.

If there is anything “left-leaning” or any evidence that union money has skewed this review, I strongly urge Sawchuk or anyone else to provide such evidence—instead of innuendo masked as balanced journalism.

And let’s unpack “left-leaning” by looking at NEPC’s mission:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.

A revision appears in order so I can help there also:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank committed to democratic and evidence-based policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies not supported by the current research base….

Since NEPC is balanced against Fordham, it seems important to note that NEPC has three times awarded Fordham its Bunkum Award (2010, 2008, 2006) for shoddy and biased reports; thus, another revision:

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a free-market think tank which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education regardless of evidence to the contrary.

I added the hyperlink to the Fordham mission statement, which uses code also (“options for families,” “efficient,” “innovation,” “entrepreneurship”) to mask their unwavering support not for “stronger” accountability but for market-based policy.

What does all this teach us, then?

All people and organizations—including Education Week, NEPC, and Fordham—are biased. To pretend some are and some aren’t is naive at best and dishonest at worst.

NEPC, I believe, freely admits there is a bias to what reports are selected for review (just as EdWeek chooses what issues to cover and where to place and how to emphasize those pieces), but the reviews implement the most widely accepted practices for transparency and accuracy, blind peer-review. Further, the reviews are freely available online for anyone to examine carefully and critically.

The real story that mainstream media are refusing to cover is that the USDOE (and the so-called reformers such as TFA, NCTQ, DFER, TNTP, etc.) lacks the experience and expertise to form education policy, but the actual researchers and practitioners of the field of education remain marginalized.

Yes, the real story is that those rejecting the USDOE’s proposed teacher education regulations are credible and that the proposal itself (as Kumashiro details) lacks credibility (notably in its use of value-added methods, which has been rejected for use in high-stakes ways by researchers left-leaning, right-leaning, and moderate; see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

The greatest failure among the mainstream media is the inability of journalists to recognize and then address that their narrative about “reformers v. anti-reformers” is a straw man argument and that the real battle is between those seeking reform built on the research base (researchers and educators consistently marginalized and demonized) and the rich and powerful without credibility committed to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing as a mask for market ideologies—despite three decades of research showing that has not worked.

And since I opened with transparency, let me end with a solid clarification that I am on record as a teacher educator that teacher education desperately needs reforming, as does public education broadly, professional education organizations, and teacher unions. And thus, I recommend the following:

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

Are We (Finally) Ready to Face Teacher Education’s Race Problem?

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

Conditions v. Outcomes: More on What’s Wrong with Teacher Education (and Accountability)? pt. 2

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Time to Invoke Reagan Directive: “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education”

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
R.E.M.
The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.
James Baldwin

Speaking as a witness from within the bowels of the Ronald Reagan administration when President Reagan gave the committee responsible for A Nation at Risk their prime directives, Gerald Holton ended with Reagan’s emphatic “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.”

About thirty years later, we must now admit it is time to invoke the Reagan directive because the USDOE cannot be any other kind of government than the very worst kind: All uninformed bureaucracy that seeks always to dig deeper from the bottom of a very deep and fruitless hole.

While Reagan’s characterizing the USDOE as an “abomination” may have been premature in the early 1980s, we must admit now that Reagan was prescient.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, states scrambled to “fix” public education through a series of accountability-based bureaucratic mandates built on standards (and new standards) and high-stakes tests (and new high-stakes tests).

By the turn of the century, we witnessed the tipping point that would prove Reagan right—No Child Left Behind [1], the ultimate shifting of know-nothing bureaucracy from the states to the federal government, specifically the USDOE.

Few could have been brave enough to predict that the George W. Bush 8 years of horrible education policy could be trumped by the Obama administration, but we are now solidly in the reality that the USDOE is a total Obamination—relentless failed bureaucracy piled on top of failed bureaucracy.

Under Obama and the appointee-leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan, public education has been bombarded by competitive grants, teacher bashing, union bashing, and a series of policies at the state and federal levels that are neither supported by research nor appropriate responses to the very real problems facing public schools (many of which are beyond the walls or control of those schools).

The two latest abominations are calling for expanding value-added methods (VAM) into teacher education and ranking colleges and universities.

Even those along a wide spectrum of ideologies who believe in the promise of VAM have consistently demonstrated that VAM is not as effective as policies claim and that VAM should not be used in any high-stakes contexts for schools, teachers, or teacher education.

Those of us who see no promise for VAM add that all this expanded testing is a tremendous waste of time and money—most notably because grasping at measurable data is missing the greatest problems burdening our schools, social and educational inequities (ironically, all circumstances that could be addressed effectively if government would behave as government as demonstrated in many other countries around the world).

As Gerald Bracey explained in numerous contexts, ranking itself is fool’s gold—and in education, ranking is particularly caustic since it creates competition where we should be in collaboration (this is also a fundamental problem with VAM as a mechanism for sorting teachers, schools, or schools/departments of education).

The two most recent abominations are not unique, however, but lie in a long line including Race to the Top, Opting Out of NCLB, and Common Core.

Simply stated, these policies are designed and promoted by people with no or little experience or expertise in the field of education. Their advocacy remains plagued by the bi-partisan political tactic of simple saying things that aren’t true and then using the bully pulpit of election or appointment to plow ahead (and thus, beware the roadbuilders).

Maybe this will sound outlandish, but let’s consider what people who have taught, studied, and researched the field of education recognize about the proposal to hold colleges/departments of education accountable for the test scores of students being taught by graduates from those colleges/departments (holding grandparents responsible for their grandchildren’s behavior, in effect):

Ridiculous I suppose—like asking the legal profession to weigh in on jurisprudence or the medical profession to craft health policy. [2]

Many people have called for the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and I never counted myself among them until now. But in the waning days of 2014, I welcome that ghost of administration’s past to ramble into the room and, as Holton paraphrased, make the call once again: “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.”

[1] The irony is NCLB called for scientifically based policy in education, and we have gotten anything except: Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

[2] Education has a very long history of being ignored as a field in terms of policy, and public education has also long labored under a misguided business model; see from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press:

For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)