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Education Letter to the Editor

‘Truthiness in Education’

March 20, 2007 4 min read
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To the Editor:

Watchdogs are a welcome and necessary part of any community and everyone deserves to be watched, scholars and think tanks included. After all, accountability is for everybody. But to be effective, watchdogs must be impartial. And to be viewed as impartial, one must diligently conduct oneself accordingly.

Enter Kevin G. Welner and Alex Molnar’s Commentary “Truthiness in Education” (Feb. 28, 2007), which describes the work of their recently launched Think Tank Review Project. Its purpose is to serve as such a watchdog, barking and nipping at think tank studies and reports they describe as “well-funded and slickly produced—yet ideologically driven—research.”

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation always thought it passing strange that so opinionated a group would set itself up as an impartial arbiter. After all, Mr. Molnar has for years opposed charter schools, privatization, and half (or maybe three-quarters) of every other education reform and reform idea worthy of attention. How can a contestant also play umpire? How can a butcher be fair to vegetarians? How, for that matter, can a leopard change his spots?

The answer? He can’t. The studies targeted by Messrs. Welner and Molnar invariably reach conclusions with which they disagree, and which might be considered “conservative” or “libertarian.” Are there really no liberal think tanks that are guilty of the crimes the pair seeks to expose? Who are the ideologues now?

More importantly, the work of the Think Tank Review Project is itself deeply flawed, sloppy, and careless. Just last month, the group had to rework a review of our latest study because its ad hominem attacks on the author turned out to be groundless. Even in their Commentary, Messrs. Welner and Molnar mix up their facts, citing the wrong Fordham study as the source of a December 2006 New York Times editorial.

They write that “the best ideas come about through rigorous critique and debate.” Indeed. Now if only they could provide such rigor.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

President

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Washington, D.C.

AUTHORS’ RESPONSE: The statement by Chester E. Finn Jr. that the Think Tank Review Project “had to rework” a review published last month of a Fordham study “because its ad hominem attacks on the author turned out to be groundless” is, at the very least, highly misleading. In response to a note from the report’s author, we clarified a point that our reviewer made. He had argued that the author was essentially recommending that readers purchase commercial products from her employer. This is, in fact, correct—and we did not modify that. However, we did make small modifications so that readers fully understood that the author never explicitly recommended commercial products that she herself had written. Contrary to Mr. Finn’s letter, the review never included ad hominem attacks—groundless or otherwise.

This review (of a report called “Whole-Language High Jinks”) and our exchange with Fordham are both available online. Readers are invited to judge the validity of Mr. Finn’s comments by reading these documents for themselves at www.thinktankreview.org.

Mr. Finn’s letter also points out that Fordham produced two reports in 2006, both of which provide state-by-state reviews of curriculum standards but only one of which we reviewed. The New York Times editorial did not specify the Fordham report that it was citing, and Mr. Finn contends that our statement was incorrect (to the effect that the Times relied on the report we had reviewed). We accept his correction and apologize for the error.

Kevin G. Welner & Alex Molnar

To the Editor:

Kevin G. Welner and Alex Molnar expose what many of us have known for some time: that ideological zealots posing as “think tanks” grind out biased reports disguised as research. The reports are really put out to promote right-wing agendas and to influence policy.

One need only to look at the track records of right-wing “think tanks” that systematically published blistering “research” reports downplaying the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ efforts in the late 1990s, and compare them with the no-bid sweetheart contracts totaling $40 million awarded to the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 and 2003. The ABCTE had no track record, only the bleating of its right-wing supporters, nested in think tanks, to show that its research on what constitutes good teaching was needed in America’s schools. It has yet to produce evidence of improving teaching or affecting student achievement, its complaint against the NBPTS, several years after receiving the tax dollars.

The Reading First scandal now blossoming in the public eye is another example of this kind of research influencing policy; the right think tanks promoted their ideologies politically, while ignoring pragmatic evidence contrary to their beliefs. They influenced a billion-dollar response to promote Reading First as “the one best way” of teaching reading. Right out of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s playbook.

These research mills are ideological, as well as intolerant of anyone who has a point of view contrary to theirs. They have been politically wired to the right wing.

Their research should go through peer review and scholarly debate, just like real research does.

Maybe the new U.S. Congress will conduct its own hearings to get at the truthiness?

Maybe.

Thomas P. Johnson

Harwich Port, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Truthiness in Education’

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