Eduwonkette Apologizes

July 8, 2008

I appreciate Eduwonkette’s apology posted on her blog and in a personal email to me.  It is a danger inherent in the rapid-fire nature of blogging that people will write things more strongly and more sweeping than they might upon further reflection.  I’ve already done this on a number of occasions in only a few months of blogging, so I am completely sympathetic and un-offended.

One could argue that these errors demonstrate why people shouldn’t write or read blogs.  In fact some people have argued that ideas need a process of review and editing before they should be shown to the public.  These people tend to be ink-stained employees of “dead-tree” industries or academia, but they have a point: there are costs to making information available to people faster and more easily.

Despite these costs the ranks of bloggers and web-readers have swelled.  There are even greater benefits to making more information available to more people, much faster than the costs of doing so.  People who read blogs and other material on the internet are generally aware of the greater potential for error, so they usually have a lower level of confidence in information obtained from these sources than from other sources with more elaborate review and editing processes.  Some material from blogs eventually finds its way into print and more traditional outlets, and readers increase their confidence level as that information receives further review.

Of course, the same exact dynamics are at work in the research arena.  Releasing research directly to the public and through the mass media and internet improves the speed and breadth of information available, but it also comes with greater potential for errors.  Consumers of this information are generally aware of these trade-offs and assign higher levels of confidence to research as it receives more review, but they appreciate being able to receive more of it sooner with less review.

In short, I see no problem with research initially becoming public with little or no review.  It would be especially odd for a blogger to see a problem with this speed/error trade-off without also objecting to the speed/error trade-offs that bloggers have made in displacing newspapers and magazines.  If bloggers really think ideas need review and editing processes before they are shown to the public, they should retire their laptops and cede the field to traditional print outlets. 

We have a caveat emptor market of ideas that generally works pretty well.

So it was disappointing that following Eduwonkette’s graceful apology, she attempted to draw new lines to justify her earlier negative judgment about our study released directly to the public.  She no longer believes that the problem is in public dissemination of non-peer-reviewed research.  She’s drawn a new line that non-peer-reviewed research is OK for public consumption if it contains all technical information, isn’t promoted by a “PR machine,” isn’t “trying to persuade anybody in particular of anything,” and is released by trustworthy institutions.

The last two criteria are especially bothersome because they involve an analysis of motives rather than an analysis of evidence.  I defended Eduwonkette’s anonymity on the grounds that it doesn’t matter who she is, only whether what she writes is true.  But if Eduwonkette believes that the credibility of the source is an important part of assessing the truth of a claim, then how can she continue to insist on her anonymity and still expect her readers to believe her.  How do we know that she isn’t trying to persuade us of something and isn’t affiliated with an untrustworthy institution if we don’t know who she is?  Eduwonkette can’t have it both ways.  Either she reveals who she is or she remains consistent with the view that the source is not an important factor in assessing the truth of a claim.

No sooner does Eduwonkette establish her new criteria for the appropriate public dissemination of research than we discover that she has not stuck to those criteria herself.  Kevin DeRosa asks her in the comments why she felt comfortable touting a non-peer-reviewed Fordham report on accountability testing. That report was released directly to the public without full technical information, was promoted by a PR machine, comes from an organization that is arguably trying to persuade people of something and whose trustworthiness at least some people question.

So, she articulates a new standard: releasing research directly to the public is OK if it is descriptive and straightforward.  I haven’t combed through her blog’s archives, but I am willing to bet that she cites more than a dozen studies that fail to meet any of these standards.  Her reasoning seems ad hoc to justify criticism of the release of a study whose findings she dislikes.

Diane Ravitch also chimes in with a comment on Eduwonkette’s post: “The study in this case was embargoed until the day it was released, like any news story. What typically happens is that the authors write a press release that contains findings, and journalists write about the press release. Not many journalists have the technical skill to probe behind the press release and to seek access to technical data. When research findings are released like news stories, it is impossible to find experts to react or offer ‘he other side,’ because other experts will not have seen the study and not have had an opportunity to review the data.”

Diane Ravitch is a board member of the Fordham Foundation, which releases numerous studies on an embargoed basis to reporters “like any news story.”  Is it her position that this Fordham practice is mistaken and needs to stop?


Eduwonkette and Eduwonk Aren’t Edumarried?

July 8, 2008

The New York Sun had a nice profile yesterday of Eduwonkette.  Well, it’s not exactly a profile because Eduwonkette writes anonymously.  In the article some folks complain that her anonymity is a problem: “A co-director of the Education Sector think tank, Andrew Rotherham, suggested on his blog Eduwonk that Eduwonkette might be unfairly pretending to be unbiased because she has ‘skin in the game… It’s this issue of you got all this information to readers, without a vital piece of information for them to put it in context.'”

I think Andy’s mistaken on this. (Did they have some kind of edu-break-up?)  The issue is not who Eduonkette is, but whether she is right or not.  Knowing who she is does not make her evidence or arguments any more or less compelling.  I wish we all spent a whole lot less time analyzing people’s motives and a whole lot more time on their evidence and arguments. 

The only major problem with anonymity is lack of responsibility for being wrong.  There is a reputational price for making bad arguments or getting the evidence wrong that Eduwonkette avoids paying professionally — although she does pay a reputational price to the name brand of Eduwonkette.

Speaking of being wrong, Eduwonkette knocks the study Marcus Winters, Julie Trivitt, and I released today through the Manhattan Institute.  She complains: “It may be an elegantly executed study, or it may be a terrible study. The trouble is that based on the embargoed version released to the press, on which many a news article will appear today, it’s impossible to tell. There is a technical appendix, but that wasn’t provided up front to the press with the glossy embargoed study. Though the embargo has been lifted now and the report is publicly available, the technical appendix is not.”

This isn’t correct.  Embargoed copies of the study were provided to reporters upon their request.  If they requested the technical report, they could get that.  Both were available well in advance to reporters so that they could take time to read it and circulate it to other experts before writing a story.  Both the study and the technical report were made publicly available today (although there seems to be a glitch with the link to the technical report that should be fixed within hours).  The technical report can be found here.

And while we are on the subject of Eduwonkette being wrong, her attacks on test-based promotion policies are overdone.  The Jacob and Lefgren paper does raise concerns, but there is more positive evidence from the experience in Florida.  As I wrote in a previous post: “In a study I did with Marcus Winters that was published in Education Finance and Policy, we found that retained students significantly outperformed their comparable peers over the next two years.  In another study we published in the Economics of Education Review, we found that schools were not effective at identifying which students should be exempted from this test-based promotion policy and appeared to discriminate in applying these exemptions.  That is, white students were more likely to be exempted by school officials in Florida from being retained, but those students suffered academically by being exempted.”

Our results may actually be consistent with what Jacob and Lefgren find.  We find academic benefits for students retained in third grade.  They find: “that grade retention leads to a modest increase in the probability of dropping out for older students, but has no significant effect on younger students.”  It could be that test-based promotion is more beneficial when done with younger students.  It could also be that the policy has positive effects on achievement with some cost to graduation. 

And particularly severe problems with the integrity of test results used for promotion decisions in Chicago may limit the ability to generalize from Chicago’s experience.  In Chicago it may have been easier to move retained students forward by cheating on the next test than actually teaching them the basic skills they need to succeed in the next grade.

Besides, I’m sure that Edwuonkette wouldn’t put too much stock in Jacob and Lefgren’s non-peer-reviewed paper released straight to the public.  I’m sure she would be consistent in her view that: “By the time the study’s main findings already have been widely disseminated, some sucker with expertise in regression discontinuity may find a mistake while combing through that appendix, one that could alter the results of the study. But the news cycle will have moved on by then. Good luck interesting a reporter in that story… So as much as I like to kvetch about peer review and the pain and suffering it inflicts, it makes educational research better. It catches many problems and errors before studies go prime time, even if it doesn’t always work perfectly.”  

Or do these standards only apply to studies whose findings she doesn’t like?   If Eduwonkette isn’t careful she might get a reputation.


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