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NCLB Outrages

Pundits' Battle Exposes the Politics of Research; Group's Claim of Nonpartisanship Is Questioned

Ohanian Comment: I'm not a huge fan of much of the work done by the Center on Education Policy--because they don't acknowledge the rot at the center of NCLB and do seem to take the Democratic stance that what's needed is more money. But look who's cited here as questioning them: The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation? Now they are certainly credible. Amazing to hear them described as a think tank. I can think of a few other descriptors. Education Next is a tad more credible but hardly non-partisan. And about once decade Chester Finn says something I can agree with.

And now, how show we label Jay Mathews?

By Jay Mathews

In the frequently quarrelsome world of federal education policy, few people have spanned the partisan divide as successfully as John F. "Jack" Jennings.

The former Democratic power broker on Capitol Hill has become one of the most-quoted education experts in the country, often called independent or bipartisan and cited for leading the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Search for "Jack Jennings CEP" on Google, and you get nearly 24,000 hits.

But in Washington, finding common ground in educational research is not easy. Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, has attacked Jennings and his center, sparking a dispute that has become the talk of education think tanks.

Their clash, and the way the media have covered it, exemplifies how the debate over the federal No Child Left Behind law often breaks down along political lines.

In an article headlined "Donkey in Disguise," posted on the Web site of the quarterly policy journal Education Next , Forster accuses Jennings of labeling the center's studies on state education policy as nonpartisan and independent while choosing research methods that always point to a Democratic Party solution: more federal money and fewer rules by the Bush administration.

"There's no hope for improving education policy if we don't keep the facts and evidence distinct from the public-school system's party (and often partisan) line," Forster concluded.

In an interview, Jennings said the center's reports are professionally done and are welcomed by Democrats and Republicans. Even as a Democratic staffer on the Hill, he said, "I always tried to be bipartisan. Almost every meeting that I convened was for both Democrats and Republicans, and the results were that nearly every law I helped to write was passed by large bipartisan majorities."

But that was before the two major parties found themselves so bitterly split on such issues as using tax-funded vouchers to send public school students to private schools -- an idea supported by the Republican Party and Forster's foundation -- and how much more money is needed to make schools better, with the Democratic Party arguing that Republicans aren't spending enough.

Forster said in the article that Jennings is wrong to depend on surveys of state education officials for his information about how much more money is needed to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind. "The experts have an overwhelming incentive to inflate their cost estimates, even if only unconsciously," Forster said, because that "will produce a political impetus to spend more money on education practitioners."

Jennings said "professional judgment," the research method Forster criticizes, is used by policymakers of both parties in several states, as well as by major research organizations and some state courts.

Beyond the argument over methodology, the part of Forster's article that has been embraced most enthusiastically by education experts on both sides of the political aisle is his suggestion that media organizations affix unfair and inaccurate political labels to some people and groups.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan administration education official who runs the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and is on the Education Next editorial board, said Forster is right to say Jennings's "politics and opinions color all that he does, says and publishes." But, Finn added: "This is no crime. Indeed, it's the norm in Washington.

"What's criminal is for the media to clothe him in a mantle of objectivity or neutrality," he said. Finn cited an Education Week report that called the Center on Education Policy "a Washington-based research organization" but said the Friedman Foundation was a "group that supports greater choice in education." If the newspaper were even-handed, he said, it would have described CEP as a "group that favors increased federal education spending." Education Week reporter Michelle Davis said she used words from the groups' Web sites to describe them and mentioned Jennings's Democratic Party background in the article.

Gerald W. Bracey, a Fairfax County-based educational psychologist and research columnist who opposes what he calls the Friedman Foundation's campaign for "the elimination of publicly run schools," said Jennings "has indeed managed to get media to see him as impartial, in contrast, say, to me or Greg [Forster]."

But Jennings's statements "usually sound reasonable to me," Bracey said, while Forster and Education Next seem partisans for vouchers and other Republican Party positions.

Both sides seem to recognize the difficulty of accomplishing what Jennings has tried to do: figure out how state education departments and school districts are using the tools given them by No Child Left Behind. Forster even finds a few good things to say about Jennings's center in the Education Next article. "Education professionals looking for a detailed review of the policies, procedures, and regulations used under NCLB [No Child Left Behind] will find much that is useful in these annual studies and other CEP publications on NCLB," he said.

Finn and Bracey, who rarely agree on anything, expressed sympathy for Jennings's struggle to make sense out of state and local responses to the federal law that are varied and hard to measure.

"Survey data such as he gathers always suffer the weakness that you might not be getting the same information as if you sent a team in to look at what is happening," Bracey said.

Finn said Forster was right to point out that the Center on Education Policy surveys school system leaders and does not collect independent factual information. But he added: "That may be inevitable . . . as there's no obvious source of plain hard facts, at least in this case."

Doing good education research is hard enough without being confused by labels and slogans, several experts said. Alexander Russo, a former teacher and Democratic Senate staffer, said on his blog This Week in Education, that whatever one thinks of Forster's conclusions, his article suggests that more care be shown by those "who have tried to recast themselves as unaffiliated and independent quasi-academic voices . . . education reporters who might have to think about who they're quoting, and . . . the foundations who fund them to do good research."

— Jay Mathews
Washington Post


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