The Death of the Think Tank, R.I.P.

March 28, 2015

Image result for russ whitehurst brookings

The recent firing of Russ Whitehurst as head of the education unit at Brookings marks the demise of the think tank.  Russ is an experimental psychologist who became the founding director of the Institute for Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.  In that role he championed the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to study the effectiveness of educational policies and interventions, which was a huge improvement in rigor for US ED-funded projects.  He then took that rigor to Brookings, where he and his colleagues conducted policy-relevant and rapid research that met high standards of social science.

But Brookings and most other think tanks have lost interest in rigorous social science.  There is relatively little thinking at think tanks these days.  Instead, they have chosen to focus almost exclusively on advocacy efforts, not realizing that effective advocacy requires generating new, high-quality information.  Without rigorous research, think tanks just repeat talking points, trying to be more clever in their phrasing and more persistent in their communication so they can be heard above the din of everyone else doing the same.

It’s a losing strategy, at least for education reformers.  The unions and their allies also know how to  repeat talking points endlessly.  And they have the resources and the numbers to drown out reformers.  Reformers have delusions of influence because of the thousands of followers they have on Twitter and the number of hits to their web sites, failing to realize how much bigger the likes of Diane Ravitch and her Army of Angry Teachers are in social media.  In their insular little world, think tank based education reformers are Kings of the Lilliputians.

The only way to beat the larger and better-resourced education establishment is with superior information.  Reasonable but uncommitted policymakers and influential elites have their doubts about the education status quo, but they are unsure about what the nature of the problems are or how to fix them.  The unions and their allies have explanations.  Schools are plagued by insufficient resources and the social problems of poverty, they say.  The solutions they offer are increased spending and broader, bolder social services in schools as the best way to improve education.  If reformers have different descriptions of the problems and want to offer alternative solutions, they need quality evidence to persuade reasonable but undecided policy elites.  Reformers can’t out-talk or out-spin the ed establishment.  They have to out-think them and that requires rigorous research.

Unfortunately, foundations and other donors are driving the shift in think tanks away from research.  In a recent analysis I did for a forthcoming book on education and philanthropy, I found that the largest 15 education foundations devote only 5.9% of their giving to support research, some of which is actually advocacy disguised as phony research.  These foundations spend nearly 5 times as much on activities that are undisguised advocacy efforts.  And most of this small amount for research funding is going to universities, so the ratio of support for research relative to advocacy at think tanks is completely out of whack.

I understand the need for people who are effective communicators to translate and summarize research for a policy audience.  But when funding for advocacy exceeds rigorous research by more than 5 to 1, there won’t be enough research for all of those communicators to translate and summarize.  They’ll just endlessly spout unsupported blather, which is what many of them are now doing.  And they are doing this because that’s what the donors and foundations have chosen to fund.

Foundations need to restore a balance between supporting quality research and advocacy if they wish to succeed in improving the education system.  They can do this by increasing support for research done at universities.  Many of the factors that drove foundations to support research at think tanks instead of universities have disappeared.  Academics were once too slow in producing work and tended to shun policy relevant topics.  No more.  It is now common and rewarded practice for professors to address current issues and release working papers with results quickly.   And the ideological stranglehold that hindered honest examination of reform efforts has also loosened significantly.  If think tanks are really dead, then long live research at universities… but only if the foundations devote more funding to it.

Perhaps think tanks are only mostly dead.  There are pockets of individuals in think tanks who still do quality empirical work.  If foundations decide to support more of their work and push think tanks to hire more of them (and not fire quality researchers like Russ Whitehurst), perhaps the currently brain-dead think tank can be brought back to life.

The future of quality education research rests in the hands of program officers and trustees at the leading foundations.  Government funding for research is shrinking and is increasingly politicized.  If we want to see more rigorous research and less Twitter drivel, foundations will need to change their funding priorities.


Breakfast of Champions in the Texas Legislature Cafeteria!

March 27, 2015

Nerd Focus

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The cafeteria in the Texas Legislature is the only source I know of for NERD FOCUS…the most powerful energy drink on the planet. It’s a good thing they have it, because I needed it during a two hour panel testimony in the Senate Education Committee. Bonus chart from the WSJ on the school choice action:

WSJ choice


Mississippi Legislature Passes Account Based Choice Program for Special Needs Students

March 26, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Mississippi Senate concurred with the House special needs ESA bill today, sending the measure to the Governor, who is a strong supporter. Mississippi thus becomes the nation’s third state with an account based parental choice program. Special congratulations to the bill sponsors and tireless supporters for a successful two-year struggle, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, Empower Mississippi and especially the parents who fought so hard for this legislation. Awesome team effort that paid off in the end.

!!BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!

Also today a special needs voucher  bill passed the Arkansas house 90-0.


UT Austin Admissions Scandal

March 26, 2015

The storm of a scandal at the University of Texas at Austin has reached gale force winds. Two internal investigations and reporting by Texas media have revealed that the leadership of the university regularly intervened in the admissions process to ensure the acceptance of unqualified applicants connected to politically powerful figures in the state.  University officials also attempted to mislead investigators to conceal or mis-describe their activities.  And Wallace Hall, a trustee who tried to bring these corrupt practices to light, was threatened for his efforts with criminal indictment by a grand jury and impeachment by state legislators, some of whom were the beneficiaries of preferential admissions.

Charles Miller, a former Chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas Systsem, sent the following letter to the current Regents, Chancellor, and a Review Committee.  I re-print it here with his permission.

—————————————————

To: Committee to Review Admissions Practices at UT Austin

From: Charles Miller, Former Chairman, UT System Board of Regents

This memo is an attempt to offer an independent and informed opinion about the direction of admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

It is patently clear that there should be a strong firewall in the admission function between the office of the president and the operation of the admissions office once broad policies are set in an open and publicly transparent process.

The firewall is not only a sound administrative structure but allows an admissions policy to be implemented with a minimal likelihood of improper influence and with a high degree of public confidence and trust.

There can be no ignoring the fact that the level of confidence and trust in admissions at UT Austin has not only been badly damaged by the recent admissions practices of the Powers administration but by the repeated efforts necessary to uncover what seems to have been going on in admissions. As the Dallas Morning News characterizes it: “Those questionable situations include the admissions scandal that led to Powers planned resignation”

What was going on? Specially tagged candidates based on interventions from ‘powerful’ people; special lists developed by the president outside of any of the official procedures; active and forceful intervention by the president and his staff in admissions decisions; destruction of admissions records; legal and public descriptions of the admissions process which were knowingly incomplete and inaccurate; and the admission of students —some severely unqualified— for purposes of gaining some sort of favor from a special class of privileged people.

The strong resistance from public policy makers and so-called supporters of UT Austin to uncovering what was happening protected an administration engaged in willful misconduct and can only have worsened the public’s perception of a great university.

Considering the practices uncovered [i]t’s difficult to understand why these officials and alums were so loud and derisive to the people trying to uncover the improprieties and why they were so vociferous in their demands for a narrow investigation. That implies it’s not yet clear that everything has surfaced that needs to become public.

Even now, as serious new legal issues are being raised in federal courts and new attempts are being made in the Texas Legislature to limit proper inquiry by regents doing their fiduciary duties, there has still been no one held accountable.

In the federal courts, these improper admissions activities will bring sustained attention, in a negative way, to UT Austin. And it will also bring continued attention to the U.T. System until there is personal accountability attached to these actions.

The leaders of the UT System seem to hope the fallout from these improper activities will go away if they just ignore what transpired. Surprisingly there has been no official response from the Board of Regents regarding the two highly negative reports resulting from investigations by Kroll Associates and the Texas Attorney General.  The UT System administration has not even taken a public position challenging the rationale for this improper admissions behavior which is tantamount to approving of it.

What was the rationale presented for this behavior? ‘Everybody does it.’ ‘There were only a small number of cases.’ ‘It was done only for the long term benefit of the university.’ ‘Only the president is able to make these judgments and these decisions.’

On the face, these are ludicrous arguments, so defensive in nature as to constitute an admission of bad practices.

However, these unanswered excuses create serious issues for designing an appropriate admissions structure and the committee must offer policy proposals which respond strongly to these defenses.

Most serious, the claim that ‘everybody does it’ besmirches the integrity and dedication to duty of the entire academic community. It’s simply a monumental falsehood and deserves the sharpest of reprimands from the committee, the broader academic community and the U.T. System.

The number of cases was not ‘small’. Otherwise, why did they go to so much trouble to engage in these activities and why try so vigorously to conceal them?

If the numbers were so small, how can this be so important for the long term benefit of the university?

If these admissions were so important as to influence powerful parties for the long term benefit of the university, how can this not be improperly trading something of value for something else of value?

The most arrogant of the excuses is that the president is the only one who can make difficult admissions decisions. This is again patently false. For example, there are well defined processes under which the university can receive gifts, describing how those gifts can be used. These decisions are put through an onerous review process, transparent and focused on the mission of the university and maintaining its independence and integrity.

Presidents are neither omniscient nor infallible. Good structures start with those assumptions. A sound admissions process can include the president’s appointing personnel to implement policy developed by the president and the administration with the approval of the Board of Regents and with a firewall in implementation at the point at which prospective students are offered admission.

Under these challenging circumstances where there has been evidence of misconduct, it is imperative that UT Austin put in place a highly transparent system for admissions, visibly removing any possibility of the recent behavior being repeated.

Respect for this great university is continuing to be damaged. Trust can only be restored and maintained by utilizing a strong form admissions firewall and by regular, self critical oversight by the UT System.


Governor Ducey Calls for Arizona Academic Standards in State Board Address

March 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Consistent with his campaign position, Arizona Governor Ducey called for the creation of Math and Reading standards that are both high and unique to Arizona in a speech to the Arizona Board of Education.

 


Ed Reformers Fantasize They Are in House of Cards But Are Really in Veep

March 19, 2015

I was slow to warm up to House of Cards.  I’ve grown so tired of the anti-heroes presented in shows like Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Dexter, that I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for Frank Underwood.  Even worse, House of Cards is about politics and I study and follow politics for work, do I really need more politics in my entertainment?

But then I realized that House of Cards is not about politics at all.  It doesn’t portray how the political world really operates.  Instead, it indulges a fantasy of how some people wish the world works.  Despite the Machiavellian amorality of the main characters, House of Cards offers the fantasy that someone is actually pulling the levers of power and able to get things done.  People don’t want reporters pushed in front of trains or alcoholic Congressmen asphyxiated in their cars, but they do want to imagine that someone understands what is going on, is able to devise effective plans, and can control events.

During the first season when Frank was championing an education reform bill, I overheard several DC-EduBubble-types express admiration for how Frank Underwood managed to roll over the teachers unions and abolish tenure.  They don’t want to be Frank, but they want to imagine that’s it’s possible to accomplish what Frank can, perhaps without the icky stuff.  Since their centralized, technocratic solutions require the conviction that smart individuals can fully-grasp and control events, House of Cards shows them the world they hope exists.

The reality is that politics looks a lot more like Veep than like House of Cards.  The characters in Veep are smart, but their vanity, pettiness, and the inherent unpredictability of the world stymies their efforts to grasp or control events.  They’re silly little monkeys in power suits pretending to be in charge of the zoo.  And it’s hilarious.

Veep is far more entertaining than House of Cards, especially this 3rd season that was just released.  The 3rd season didn’t even continue to deliver on the fantasy of competence and control.  As Nick Gillespie wrote in a brilliant review in The Daily Beast:

House of Cards is going softer than President Frank Underwood’s gut…. Even more disappointing is the devolution of First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from a ruthless operator who puts Agrippina the Younger to shame into a latter-day Lady Macbeth filled with doubts about her and her husband’s patently unredeemable actions. “We’re murderers, Francis,” she says at one point in the new season—as if that’s a bad thing.

But even at its peak, House of Cards is far less appealing than Veep.  House of Cards is to politics as porn is to romance.  There is a certain base appeal, but it is superficial and fleeting.  Veep, on the other hand, is remarkably truthful in its ridiculousness.  My belly hurts with laughter as I watch Veep — much like when I read the similarly ridiculous Twitter feeds of the EduPundits.


The Unbreakable Advance of Feminist Comedy

March 18, 2015

There’s an old joke that goes:

Q: Did you hear the one about the feminist?

A: [Pause, stare, and answer angrily] It isn’t funny.

Well, that’s no longer true.  Feminists are now funny.  Really funny.  And they aren’t just getting laughs, they are advancing the cause of feminism with the power of humor.

I argued for the progressive power of humor when I nominated Fasi Zaka for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award for mocking the Taliban.  But the wonderful new Netflix comedy series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, goes far beyond mocking its antagonists a la The Daily Show and its groupthink smugness.  Unbreakable can preach beyond its choir by mocking its heroes as well as its villains.

The Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who imprisoned a group of women in his bunker is ripe for ridicule as are the women who preferred the simplicity of remaining there or who exploited their status as “mole women” to get money and attention.  You can’t advance the cause of women without at least acknowledging and joking about the common mistakes women make in addition to mocking the troglodytes who oppress them.

But Kimmy is determined to move beyond her mole woman past and make it on her own in New York City.  She really is unbreakable.  Unlike 1970s songs about women’s power, like “I Will Survive” or “I am Woman,” the assertion that Kimmy is unbreakable is not a wish that stands at odds with current experience.  She continues to suffer, make mistakes, and face obstacles, but she moves forward 10 seconds at a time.   She is a fully realized feminist heroine.

And because she and by extension other women have finally made it, they are strong enough to be the butt of jokes.  The humorlessness of the earlier feminist movement was a sign of its weakness.  If you’re too insecure and weak, you can’t afford to be made fun of.  I’m glad to report that the women’s movement has matured and strengthened to the point where it can dish it as well as take it.

You’ve come a long way, baby.


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