To the Editor:
Re: Your front-page story (“Release of Unreviewed Studies Sparks Debate,” May 18, 2005):
The need for tighter peer-review mechanisms in educational research was not settled last summer after the American Federation of Teachers published a controversial study about charter school performance that sparked an uproar. Recent news and commentary in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times about what has become known as mobility mania serve as cases in point.
On May 13, 2005, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page story entitled “As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls.” It described the growing abyss, based on data from the University of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Labor, finding that “intergenerational mobility in the United States has not changed dramatically over the last two decades.” The Journal reporter went on to quote a Michigan economist, who said that earlier studies relied on “error-ridden data, unrepresentative samples, or both.” The implications for education were noted.
Then on May 15, The New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline “Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide.” The two Times reporters wrote that, according to economists today, initial mobility studies were flawed. They pointed out the importance of new evidence because “success in school remains linked tightly to class.”
Readers who relied on these two stories would come away believing the same thing. But on May 18, the Journal’s editorial pageran an op-ed essay by Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute, who declared that the research cited in the two stories consisted of results that were “statistically weak.” Mr. Reynolds went on to assert that “income distribution is an agenda-driven ideological fixation that frequently impairs journalistic judgment.” He repeated his claim that “there is no evidence that it has become harder to get ahead through hard work at school and on the job.”
This is where matters stand at the moment. But more on the subject is sure to follow. The point of this recitation is to underscore the need for researchers to control the dissemination of their findings in order to avoid confusion on the part of the public. Unfortunately, it seems today that speed is more important than scrutiny. There’s an adage in journalism that applies here: Get it first, but first get it right.
Los Angeles, Calif.
The writer, now a journalist, taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.