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'Spin Cycle' makes research vs. policy case on charter schools

Susan Notes:

Greg Toppo asks good questions.

By Greg Toppo

On Aug. 17, 2004, a New York Times front-page story featured the first national data on publicly funded, privately run charter schools. An analysis of Department of Education statistics by the American Federation of Teachers found that charter school students often do worse than similar students in regular public schools.

The findings were "buried in mountains of data," the Times said, and released without fanfare, suggesting the Bush administration, which favors charter schools, had something to hide. The teachers union had long been critical of charter schools.

The story set off criticism both of the union and the Times. Critics said both were using preliminary data to make a political point.

That got Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist at Columbia University, thinking about the role of high-quality research, advocacy and the press on policy in education. The result is a new book, Spin Cycle ($32.50, Russell Sage Foundation).

Q: It's surprising how often you use wrestling metaphors to describe education research. You quote observers calling one scuffle "a nerdy Celebrity Death Match" and say the public sees research as "tag team wrestling." So are the matches fixed?

A: No, not fixed. But often played out for drama and to thrill, rather than enlighten or ennoble the onlooking crowd.

Q: Defenders of the American Federation of Teachers report in 2004 said the union was "liberating data" that the public wouldn't have otherwise seen because the Bush administration didn't want unflattering statistics on charter schools released. Do you buy this?

A: Stripped of the rhetorical flourish, yes. I certainly buy the notion that the administration wished the data would have shown charters in a better light. There was almost zero chance the information could have been buried for long, but it is credible that some in the administration hoped that something would be gained by delaying attention. They knew that a more sophisticated analysis was in the works ΓΆ€" one that would more precisely take into account the fact that charter schools might be attracting students who were tougher to educate.

Q: In May, new evidence appeared that backs up the 2004 analysis, but no one seems to have noticed. Is this another example of experts and policymakers ignoring good data?

A: The relative silence reflects the fact that the terms of the debate are beginning to shift. Both proponents and critics now acknowledge that there are good charter schools and bad ones, and this is what the evidence pretty consistently shows. The two camps still differ markedly in their predictions of where things might head if charter schooling continues to grow.

Q: You say the way science has been used in public discourse on education so far is "discouraging," and you add: "If research is seen as petty and partisan and a tactical weapon in political battles, its capacity to convince the convincible may be tragically undermined."

A: We researchers need to shoulder some of the responsibility. In an effort to be timely and relevant, we sometimes precipitously jump into raging debates and present our evidence as more definitive and our conclusions about policy implications as more straightforward than is justified. Politicians and the public get impatient when researchers say, "We just do not know." But sometimes that's what we need to say. Acknowledging the complexity of the problems that face us is more honest and in the final analysis, more likely to steer us toward feasible solutions.

Q: How much blame do the news media bear for the dearth of reporting about research?

A: The press is not the source of the problem, but you're not doing much to solve it, either. I realize that you are under financial pressure and convinced that readers and listeners want stories that are simple, colorful and short. But I think the public wants and deserves more than the lowest common denominator. Maybe it's naive on my part, but I still believe the media can play a role in raising the level of public knowledge and discourse.

Q: Would it help for education to have its version of The Journal of the American Medical Association?

A: I argue for this in Spin Cycle. The education field today is highly fragmented, and no journal currently rises above the others with a broad scope and authoritative voice. I think it would help decisionmakers, journalists and the public if there were a publication that sifted through the chaff and put a spotlight on studies that merited serious attention.

Q: Is there reason to be hopeful?

A: Some readers have suggested that Spin Cycle offers an optimistic account of the potential for research to lead to better public policies. Despite all the high-profile, partisan manipulation, I show in the book that research is beginning to converge on some important points about charter schools. Over time, good evidence can trump anecdote and exaggeration. I do think there are reasons to be apprehensive, though. In the high-octane, rat-a-tat world of ideological warfare, citizens and policymakers can get so overwhelmed by evidence claims that they cynically conclude that social science is just one more weapon in the political arsenal.

It's important not to oversell what research can do. Most policy choices require balancing multiple values and making choices among competing interests. Better information can help us make better judgments, but it cannot absolve us of the need to make judgments.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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