Education Opinion

Uberblogger Alexander Russo asks: What is the role, impact or benefit of education think tanks?

By Marc Dean Millot — February 02, 2008 11 min read
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I thank This Week in Education’s Alexander Russo for trying to prompt debates of the first order at a time when eduwonks and edubloggers are all too focused on the trivia surrounding NCLB II. Friday, February 1, he asked: “The money (to start and support education think tanks) keeps pouring in.... But what about influence, not to speak of value?”

In principle, the role of the think tank overlaps that of the academy. Both have some obligation to seek truth, avoid subterfuge, and apply reasonable standards of rational argument and evidence. But the scope of academia extends throughout time, across all areas, and for the sake of knowledge itself. The think tank is about here and now, and is concerned with those matters where government decisions and actions affect society over the relatively near term - at least as compared with, say, geological time. The academy creates knowledge and leaves it on the table for others to pick up; think tanks supply government with ideas that inform public policy.
They perform this function in several ways: conceptual innovation, elucidation, criticism, debate, outreach, persuasion, and technical assistance. The first activity is far and away the most difficult, but we should not undervalue the skills required to persuade government to implement innovative concepts. It’s no great feat to expand on a new idea, identify its shortcomings, engage in argument over it, put it into the media, or help others with implementation. Still, without these activities, concepts would never be vetted, no one would learn about them, and they would never become government routines.

Following this logic of the think tank “in principle,” the value of an organization claiming this status should be measured in terms of innovations implemented by government. So the core competencies of the institution amount to the “production” and “sale” of social innovations to policymakers. Persuading government to adopt trivial ideas, or developing great ideas that are not implemented just doesn’t cut it.

The standards and accountability movement of the 1980’s was important to public education, but to call the idea of applying what is commonplace in the American economy - and even much of government’s social service sector - to public education an “innovation” trivializes the term. In any case, I don’t see the movement as the product of think tanks, so much as legislators’ complete frustration with the system’s performance, and a bipartisan agreement on the need to get a handle on it. They didn’t need anyone to supply them with the means, they applied what they already knew and let experts sort out the details.

By the same token, the use of technology - data management, computers, software, the internet - in public education had and has a similar kind of inevitability. The innovation lies in the generic invention, not its application.

My knowledge is far from encyclopedic, and if others can add to this list I’d welcome it, but I count six ideas that have had a palpable impact on public policy (i.e. had a material effect on how government conceives and carries out its responsibility to educate children): vouchers, choice, charters, comprehensive school reform and specifically the idea of nonprofit program dissemination through fees rather than grants, the market created by the interaction of AYP and SBR, and the application of value-chain analysis to public school operations. None of these ideas has transformed public education in the sense of changing it from one thing to something else, but each has been institutionalized at least to the point where it constitutes a “real option” for policymakers to pursue, expand, and perhaps replace the dominant paradigm.

Vouchers are the idea of academic Milton Friedman, and I think his 1950’s writings alone have been sufficiently robust and cogent to persuade enough powerful people to establish legislative toeholds in the face of enormous political opposition, and despite the taint of the idea’s early relationship to the private white academies formed in response to court-ordered desegregation. (Hence, today’s term “opportunity scholarship.”) I don’t think the status of the voucher idea can be attributed to a think tank, and I don’t think the advocacy organizations who have helped keep the idea alive or their funders can be said to be think tanks.

Until the Brookings Institution Press released Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, in 1990, the word “choice” meant vouchers, and lacked respectability in mainstream policy circles in Washington. The book was well-researched and well-written by academics John Chubb and Terry Moe, but what gave market ideas intellectual and political credibility was publication by the nation’s first and most respectable establishment think tank. I can remember at RAND seeing how after the book was published it became politically possible for people like Paul Hill (school contracting, a conceptual innovation that hasn’t quite managed to take hold - witness the fates of EAI and Edison, but still might in New Orleans and Chicago) to discuss means of educating children besides a vertically-integrated government monopoly without being accused of being a member of some right wing fringe with suspect motivations amounting to racism.

The charter schools concept was pushed first by academic Ray Budde in Massachusetts in the 1980’s, as well as AFT leader Al Shanker, and then think-tanker Ted Kolderie in Minnesota in the early 1990’s. The idea was sufficiently compelling to pick up substantial grassroots support and quickly become a political movement. Today, there are many organizations working on charter schools, some consider themselves think tanks, most are advocacy groups. Most activities relate to the ongoing debate. The economic power lies with a few foundations. But the political power of the idea still lies in the grassroots, with the schools.

Comprehensive school reform (CSR) has its roots in the public school networks created in the 1980’s by Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, James Comer’s School Development Program, Hank Levin’s Accelerated Schools Project, and Bob Slavin’s Success For All - all academics translating their experience with field research into scalable programs. Their ideas became policy in the late 1990’s because they and a program development “investor” - not really a think tank - New American Schools, convinced a few Democrats in Congress to push the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRDP). The “whole school” model offered an alternative to vouchers and charters as a means of building meaningful diversity into public education offerings while retaining the advantages of district and provider scale. CSRDP institutionalized the nonprofit “business model” proposed by RAND and adopted by New American Schools Design Teams for program implementation at scale (yours truly played role in both organizations) - fees generated from client schools rather than foundation grants. When the Democrats lost Congress, the program was doomed, but the market segment lives on. Moreover, nonprofit education providers are adopting the fee-based model - not only to assure financial sustainability, but because they recognize that a school’s willingness to commit money is one concrete indicator of “buy-in.”

I don’t think the next policy innovation was developed deliberately, it simply happened. No Child Left Behind’s combination of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and Scientifically Based Research (SBR) form the basis of school improvement market managed by federal regulation. (Listen here, here, and here.) The calculation of AYP determines demand, the rules for SBR determine supply. Unfortunately there is nothing in federal policy after NCLB passed to suggest anyone saw the symbiosis or, if they did see it, sought to manipulate AYP and SBR as an “industrial policy” for a new kind of supply. If anything, every government action seems to have been intended to make SBR irrelevant in administration of the law. On second thought, if success is not simply measured by the embodiment of an idea in law, but its implementation, this may qualify more as the still birth of an immaculate conception. Perhaps some reader can fill in more of the details. My guess is that the opportunity to use these policy levers in tandem will be lost in NCLB II.

The last item is barely of interest to the inhabitants of most education think tanks. Management consulting firms have provided pro-bono support to various urban school reform programs since at least the 1970s. Until recently it’s been mostly window dressing, at best an opportunity for the consultants to learn just how complicated public education really is.

Through the mid 1990’s most of what passed for financial analysis (outside of substantial litigation over the constitutionality of state school finance schemes) was carried out by Allen Odden at the University of Wisconsin and private consultant Karen Miles - both sometimes affiliated with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE - a contractual vehicle for university-based research more than a think tank), and researcher Margarite Roza at the quasi-independent Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) think tank affiliated with the University of Washington. All have all done important work on a question familiar to those engaged in the financial analysis of businesses - resource allocation.

In this case, the researchers were particularly interested in actual differences in per pupil spending across schools in the same district and the atomization of district spending on the professional development of teachers. Miles helped San Antonio, Memphis, Cincinatti and several other school districts think about how to reallocate funds to purchase New American Schools Designs, and had similar impact in Boston. As court-appointed Special Master in the Abbot decision, Odden played an important role in changing resource allocation in New Jersey. CRPE and Roza helped district leaders consider the adoption of per pupil budgeting in Seattle and Denver.

This work laid an important foundation but, in my view, the conceptual breakthrough occurred when the Parthenon and Boston Consulting Groups - two prominent management consulting firms - brought “value chain” analytical techniques developed by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter to bear on public education operations. These not only tie costs to activities, but explain the contribution of activities across the enterprise to important intermediate outcomes, and inform real decisions. This happened on a small scale in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, under the guidance of local businessman, one-time management consultant and school board chair Arthur Dodge, and then-superintendent Vicki Phillips (yes, the Gates Foundation Vicki Phillips) - the first district in the nation to receive an ISO 9000 rating.

When Parthenon applied a skill set honed working with major publishers to New American Schools Design teams in the mid-1990’s, it transformed the mindset of every leadership team. (I believe the experience is an important reason all but one of the organizations have been a financial success.) Parthenon went on to do important work for both the Boston and District of Columbia school systems. Boston Consulting Group recently completed a study for the state of Delaware with enormous implications for organization and spending. Education is not General Motors, Microsoft or Yahoo, but the analytical techniques applied to the latter are relevant to the former. With a decade of adequate funding for their work and a growing base of experience, the tools are being refined to fit the values and circumstances of public schooling. Think tanks are not really part of this picture; indeed few eduwonks pay much attention to the work, but it holds a great deal of promise for the cause of school improvement.

By the standard of having important ideas and seeing them implemented, think tanks have not performed all that well. Brookings offers one exception, and although its contribution amounts to “being there,” the decision to publish was important, and may not have been without debate. I don’t know. RAND’s ideas about fee-for-service program dissemination by nonprofits were also important, but it was the persuasive ability of NAS leadership and the program developers that turned the model into the basis of a federal law. Finally, think tanks outside the Beltway seem to have a better record for developing innovative education policy concepts than those focused on the federal government.

The record suggests that think tanks do not have a monopoly on the stuff of social innovation, nor even the marketing of those ideas. Indeed, they don’t seem to be all that good at what “in principle” should be their core competencies. What’s this all about?

In no small part, creative types with a policy bent have found attractive homes in the academy. The Cold War led to a vast expansion of practical research based in higher education, including in the social sciences. In the 1970’s this work was extended to domestic issues. The relatively recent professionalization of higher education, where research activities along with business, medical, and law schools have come to dominate the balance sheet, reinforced the academic acceptability of applied research. Consistent with this trend, many teachers colleges were transformed into education schools. The decision to found schools of public policy had a direct impact on think tanks. (Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government was only cobbled together in 1978; the Yale School of Management in 1976.) Overall, people who might have left for a think tank stayed in school, commuting to Washington periodically. Universities have more or less won the war for creative talent.

So how is it that organizations that consider themselves to be “think tanks” remain, indeed, as Alexander points out, thrive, despite their disappointing record on their most important measure of merit?

If every organization succeeds at what it was designed to do, what are “think tanks” designed for? Clearly the “in principle” theory is flawed. When theory fails, it’s time to look at practice. In this case, an analysis of think tanks’ customers.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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