"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Beating Back the Propagandists

From EPIC:

December 23, 2009

TEMPE, Ariz. and BOULDER, Colo. (December 23, 2009) -– This past week, two new reviews of think tank reports were published online: by Teacher Magazine and by Teachers College Record. Neither of these reviews was published as part of the Think Tank Review Project, but both further the project's goal of advancing discussions by providing the public, policy makers, and the press with timely reviews of think-tank publications.

Innovation "Report Card" - On December 16th, Teacher Magazine published a review by Alaska 2009 Teacher of the Year Bob Williams, who examined the goals and methods underlying a report that had assigned each state an "innovation" letter grade. The report, called "Leaders and Laggards," was a follow-up to a 2007 report from the same group that had been published in November by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce along with the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess.

Williams focuses his review on aspects of the report concerning alternative teacher certification and teacher tenure. He notes that the report's authors begin with the premise that "improving education requires weakening teacher tenure and union influence while supporting alternative certification and national programs to place inexperienced people ... into teaching positions with minimal training." Williams explains how the report distorts the data in order to create state-by-state ratings that fit the authors' pre-determined agenda. The 'innovation' ratings are really little more than a façade for the authors' advocacy for privatization and marketization of public education.

The Williams review can be accessed through the website of Teacher Magazine, which requires (free) registration, or on the Epicpolicy.org website, where it was republished with permission of the author.

Fordham Detracking Report - On December 14th, the journal Teachers College Record published a commentary by University of Colorado at Boulder Professor Kevin
Welner, who co-directs the Think Tank Review Project. Welner provides a brief review of a new report authored by Brookings' Dr. Tom Loveless and published by the Fordham Institute. Loveless' key conclusion is that each additional track in eighth-grade mathematics in Massachusetts is associated (in a regression model he presents) with a 3 percentage-point rise in students scoring at the advanced level on the state exam, after holding constant the school-level percentage of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch, which he calls "socioeconomic status."

Welner's review describes how the Loveless report combines weak data with questionable analyses to manufacture an argument against detracking. For instance, even using just the limited control of free- or reduced-price lunch rates, the purported benefit to high-achieving students disappears when one compares the option of a school with two math tracks versus an untracked school. Overall, better treatment of these same data would likely show that high-achieving Massachusetts middle school students in heterogeneous, untracked schools do as well or better than those in two-tracked schools -- certainly in language arts (English) and maybe even in mathematics. Welner concludes that the report misleads in an attempt to convince policymakers to maintain tracking policies.

The Welner review is available here. It can also be accessed through the website of Teachers College Record (subscription required).

About the Think Tank Review Project

The Think Tank Review Project (http://thinktankreview.org), a collaborative project of the University of Colorado at Boulder Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) and the ASU Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU), provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think tank publications. The project is made possible by funding from the Great Lakes Center
for Education Research and Practice.

Kevin Welner, the project co-director, explains that the project is needed because, "despite their garnering of media attention and their influence with many policy makers, reports released by private think tanks vary tremendously in their quality. Many think tank reports are little more than ideological argumentation dressed up as research. Many others include flaws that would likely have been identified and addressed through the peer review process. We believe that the media, policy makers, and the public will greatly benefit from having qualified social scientists provide reviews of these documents in a timely fashion." He adds, "we don't consider our reviews to be the final word, nor is our goal to stop think tanks' contributions to a public dialogue. That dialogue is, in fact, what we value the most. The best ideas come about through rigorous critique and debate."


Kevin Welner, Professor and Director
Education and the Public Interest Center
University of Colorado at Boulder
(303) 492-8370

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