Does education research measure up?

Is there a crisis of quality in education research? In a forum Sept. 29, a team of education experts will discuss National Education Policy Center‘s new book, Think Tank Research Quality: Lessons for Policy Makers, the Media and the Public.

On National Journal, one of the book’s authors, University of Colorado Education Professor Kevin Welner, argues that shoddy think tank research is pushed to the fore by marketing campaigns drowning out more rigorous academic research.

The state of public discourse on education is woeful, with academic researchers conducting high-quality studies but talking mainly to one another, while along a parallel track run meaningful conversations between policymakers and well-connected advocacy think tanks.

Drawing on our Think Tank Review Project, the book presents 21 reviews of recent think tank reports on key issues such as school choice, early-childhood education, education finance, teacher quality, and standards-based accountability.

“New entrepreneurial providers (like the NewSchools Venture Fund) and advocacy and research operations (like the Education Trust or the Fordham Institute)” have challenged the old gatekeepers of research (ed schools, ed journals and national associations), writes Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Now, there is a continuing, worsening embrace of what I’ve called “the new stupid” in how data and research are used, but that points to problems with how practitioners and policymakers use the research that they read. As I argued a couple years ago in Educational Leadership, “Today’s enthusiastic embrace of data has waltzed us directly from a petulant resistance to performance measures to a reflexive and unsophisticated reliance on a few simple metrics.”

NEPC’s Think Tank Review Project is not the ultimate arbiter of good research, Hess writes, though it can contribute to the discussion.

Don’t mess with Massachusetts

Beware of requiring soft, vague 21st century skills, such as “media literacy, critical thinking and working in groups,” editorializes the Boston Globe. The state school board is considering a proposal by a task force which concluded that “straight academic content is no longer enough” for student success. The Globe warns:

The 21st-century skills movement could return Massachusetts to an era of low academic standards.

Massachusetts’ “15-year track record of successful education reform” is at risk, write Charles D. Chieppo and James T. Gass in Education Next.

Despite the clear success of more than a decade of education reform in Massachusetts, Governor Patrick’s administration has turned its back on the very forces behind that success: it is wavering on standards, choice is under continual fire, and the board of education has been stripped of the independence that for 170 years was Horace Mann’s legacy and had allowed the board to implement reform with a singular focus on improving student achievement.

. . . Results released in September 2008 showed a sharp drop in MCAS pass rates and flat or declining scores in the elementary and middle school grades and in many urban districts.

Massachusetts probably has the best education system in the nation. Why mess it up?