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The Bunkum Awards

Susan Notes:

For hot links to the dubious
articles, go to the url below.

The Bunkum Awards highlight nonsensical,
confusing, and disingenuous education reports
produced by think tanks. They are given each
year by the Think Tank Review Project to think
tank reports judged to have most egregiously
undermined informed discussion and sound policy


The William Shockley Prize for Identifying Who
Shouldnât be Educated

High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB
(Think Tank Review)
The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-
Grade Algebra (Think Tank Review)
Think Tank: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Brown
Center on Education Policy at the Brookings
The Fordham Institute and the Brookings
Institution jointly win the Shockley for their
articles authored by Tom Loveless. His back-to-
back winners came only three months apart but
both showed his undying commitment to convince
policy makers that we devote far too much
effort into academically challenging the wrong

High Achieving Students in an Era of NCLB
attempts to build the case that concentrating
on low-achieving children diminishes the growth
of the higher achievers, who accordingly become
âlanguid.â Dr. Loveless comes to this
conclusion by presenting NAEP score comparisons
of trends among high- and low-scorers, showing
faster growth at the bottom of the
distribution. â[T]his trend,â the report
concludes, âsuggests a missed opportunity to
promote achievement among high achievers.â Our
reviewer pointed out that while the report
notes the inability of its correlational
analyses to be used to draw causal inferences,
such inferences nonetheless are used
pervasively to bolster policy recommendations â"
most overreachingly in the report's foreword by
Fordham's Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli.

Loveless returns to the âwasted energiesâ theme
in The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-
Grade Algebra, published by the Brookings
Institution. In this piece, Loveless contends
that having low-achieving students in algebra
classes with highly proficient students dampens
opportunities for the best students and dooms
many lower achievers to failure. Only one peer
reviewed article is discussed, and it comes to
a different conclusion â" so Loveless criticizes
it for selection bias. His research method is
to use state NAEP scores and correlate them
with algebra-taking rates in each state. Since
no relationship was found, he fearlessly
considers his hypothesis sustained. Yet,
although the report itself acknowledges that
its correlational findings should not be used
to argue that causal relationships have been
found, it then continues on to do just that.
Sound familiar?

The Rose Colored Blinders Award
Public Charter Schools: A Great Value for
Ohioâs Public Education System (Think Tank
Think Tank: The Buckeye Institute for Public
Policy Solutions
This award is bestowed upon Public Charter
Schools: A Great Value for Ohioâs Public
Education System, authored by Matthew Carr and
Beth Lear and published by Ohioâs Buckeye
Institute. While many advocacy think tanks
annually contend for this high honor, it was
earned this year by the Buckeye Institute for
its determined disregard of an extensive, non-
partisan, and quite relevant state official
report, its non-existent literature review, and
its decisive failure to comprehend the state
funding formula lying at the heart of its
analysis. Our reviewer was blown away by these
bundled blunders leading to the baseless
conclusion that each charter student saves as
much as $4,030 for the host public school
district. He described the report as âunfounded
and outlandish,â as well as âridiculously
false, deceitful, and patently
misrepresent[ing] how the funding of public
schools works.â

The Maybe Itâll Be True If We Say It One
More Time Award

Review of Reports on 10 state public opinion
surveys on K-12 school choice (Think Tank
The High Cost of Failing to Reform Public
Education (Think Tank Review)
Think Tank: The Friedman Foundation for
Educational Choice
The Friedman Foundation garners the MIBTIWSIOMT
award this year for building two distinct
franchises on little more than fixated false

One set of five cloned state studies offered
the repetitive conclusion that high school
dropouts would be reduced and economic
prosperity advanced if voucher programs were
introduced in each state. Although severely
handicapped by the fact that there is, in fact,
no significant evidence that vouchers will
reduce drop-outs, the author hangs his hat on a
single 1998 study. Ironically, the Friedman
reports themselves criticize the very approach
used in this cherry-picked article: reliance on
administrative counts (such as reports of
school principals) to estimate high school

Even more impressive than this first effort,
the Foundation stamped out ten separate state
surveys, all of which came to the conclusion
that potential voters in each state endorsed
private school vouchers. Admittedly, the
surveys suffered from biased questions and were
administered to respondents whose own responses
showed limited knowledge of the very same
educational policy issues they provided
opinions about. But the important thing is that
these respondentsâ conclusions were
substantially more pro-voucher than the Kappan
Gallup poll responses on the same topic.
(Except that Friedman never told its readers
about the Gallup research.) Perhaps most
damning, the authors reached so far for their
conclusions that they went even beyond that
supportable by their own survey results.

The Triennial Sweepstakes Consolation

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global
Review of the Evidence (Think Tank Review)
Think Tank: Cato Institute
In this third year of the awards, the true
barons of bunkum have bullied their way to the
front. Perennial powerhouses Friedman and
Fordham once again made the list for poor
research and execution. Sadly, the Cato
Institute in 2008 failed to hit its mark. Their
entry into the competition was a global review
called Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A
Global Review of the Literature. Normally, a
report that excludes major studies, ignores
selection bias, and oversimplifies the complex
characteristics of educational markets would be
a contender. Further, in an act of self-
aggrandizing puffery, the report proclaims
itself to be of âprofoundâ importance to U. S.
educational policy. Alas, they were knocked
from this yearâs rankings by their application
of alleged lessons from the educational systems
of Pakistan, India, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria
to the fundamentally and structurally different
system of the United States. This left our
judges no choice but to dismiss the report as
merely silly.

About Bunkum Awards
Think Tank Review Project

The Think Tank Review Project provides the
public, policy makers, and the press with
timely, academically sound reviews of selected
think-tank publications. The project is a
collaborative effort of the Education Policy
Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State
University and the Education and the Public
Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of

Reviewers for the Think Tank Review Project
apply academic peer review standards to reports
from think tanks and write brief reviews for
the project web site. They are asked to examine
the reports for the validity of assumptions,
methodology, results, and strength of links
between results and policy recommendations. The
reviews, written in non-academic language, are
intended to help policy makers, reporters, and
others assess the merits of the reviewed
reports. Our 2007 commentary in Education Week,
explains why the Bunkum Awards were created
(see "Truthiness in Education").

The Think Tank Review Project is made possible
by funding from the Great Lakes Center for
Education Research and Practice.

Bunkum: Background
From the "MacMillan English Dictionary
This word started life in its current sense of
'nonsense' in around 1820 and its original
spelling was 'buncombe'. It comes from the name
of a county in North Carolina, USA: Buncombe.
During a debate in Congress, the county's
representative, Felix Walker, delivered a
seemingly endless speech which many present
felt to be meaningless and irrelevant, but the
congressman refused to stop talking, declaring
himself to be determined to deliver a speech
'for Buncombe'. Thus, bunkum became a term for
long-winded nonsense of the kind often seen in
politics, and from there progressed to the more
general meaning of just plain 'nonsense'.

— Education and the Public Interest Center
Think Tank Review Project


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