The Siren’s Call of Policy Influence

I’ve written several times before about education policy analysts who confuse the constant sound of their own voice for actual influence over policy.  There are many faux education experts who have never really done anything or studied anything that would support their self-proclaimed status as experts.  And the foundations that fund them are making a foolish mistake in thinking that the non-stop chattering of these faux experts actually influences anybody.  Education policymaking is a long game that requires investment in serious inquiry.  Solid evidence, not an insular circle of blabbering, moves the elite consensus and creates the conditions for enduring policy changes.

The problem is that not only are foundations remarkably under-funding serious inquiry, but the academics who should be engaging in that research are increasingly drawn to the siren’s call of policy influence.  Yes, it is a proper goal of policy research to have influence, but that influence is the end-product of serious work, not the thing for which the quality of one’s work and intellectual standards should be sacrificed.

The latest example of academics attempting to trade their integrity for influence can be found in Ray Fisman’s Slate article on vouchers in Sweden.  Fisman is a Harvard-trained economist who has rapidly risen to a named professorship at Columbia University’s business school.  He rose so rapidly because he has done some excellent work published in leading journals.

But even highly capable scholars have difficulty resisting the temptation to abandon their standards for their imagined ability to influence policy.  So, Fisman has also become a columnist for Slate.  His columns are nothing like his scholarship.  In particular, his recent piece on vouchers in Sweden was filled with glaring errors of fact as well as obvious flaws in causal reasoning.  Andrew Coulson has an excellent take-down of Fisman’s piece over at Education Next.  You should read Andrew’s entire piece, but some highlights of Fisman’s sloppiness include:

  • Fisman claims “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth.”  In fact, only about 14% of Sweden’s students attend private schools, significantly less than the 68% in Belgium as well as higher numbers in a host of other developed countries.
  • Fisman’s only “evidence” that vouchers have harmed achievement in Sweden is that PISA scores have dropped in that country over the last decade.  The Razorback football program has also gotten a lot worse over the last decade.  By Fisman’s causal reasoning, perhaps Swedish vouchers are responsible for my poorly performing Hogs.  This is the type of mis-NAEP-ery we expect of Marc Tucker or Diane Ravitch, not a Harvard-trained economist in a named professorship at Columbia.

Fisman would never make such sloppy mistakes in a journal submission or conference presentation.  His colleagues would laugh at him.  But nothing seems to deter Fisman or other would-be Paul Krugmans from making laughable claims in the popular press.  Maybe academics should not be given such a free pass for whatever they write outside of journals.  Maybe the credibility of their scholarly work and their status within the academic community should also be called into question if they are willing to be so reckless.

Look, I know from personal experience the lure of policy influence.  I’ve been in the think-tank world and taken part in the silly collection of “metrics” of influence to get foundation funding.  And I’ve felt the temptation to claim expertise in areas beyond my scholarship.  But we all have to resist these temptations if we are to maintain the standards of academic work.  We need to maintain those standards so that research can remain credible and be the source of true, long-run policy influence.

4 Responses to The Siren’s Call of Policy Influence

  1. “Fisman is a Harvard-trained economist who has rapidly risen to a named professorship at Columbia University’s business school. He rose so rapidly”

    Please, go on!!!! Name them ALL… don’t just pick out your favorites. When you attack Marilyn Cochrane Smith or Linda Darling Hammond, or Louisa Moats or the woman at Teachers College (or, as back in the day Jeanne Chall and Carol Chomsky) please point out the substantial body of work behind their “opinions” and “ancedotes” ……

    • Patrick says:

      I’m not sure Linda Darling Hammond has done much groundbreaking scholarly work. Influential, yes, but there are suckers born every minute. I learned that from the circus. And by circus, I mean political science courses taught by constructivists.

  2. pdexiii says:

    Patrick, putting on my engineerd hat, define ‘scholarly work,’ and which educators produce it?

  3. […] Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas offers Fisman’s work as a cautionary tale on his […]

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