Protect Research From Devolving Into Ideology

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To the Editor:

I applaud the honesty in Jeanne Allen’s letter to the editor ("Charter-Study Criticism: No Apology Forthcoming," Letters, Nov. 3, 2004). Ms. Allen writes that she will only care to scrutinize the findings of researchers who report largely positive outcomes for charter schools if The New York Times reports on such studies. Moreover, she says, the reporting must be “above-the-fold, front-page coverage.” I assume that Ms. Allen means to say she will applaud and promote any studies that support charter schools and make her best effort to discredit studies that find problems with these schools.

Ms. Allen is telling us that, for her, the quality of the study does not matter. All that matters is her pre-existing truth and how she can further buttress its standing.

This is not a surprise to me, of course. I am nonetheless startled by so bold an admission by Ms. Allen that research really is irrelevant when it comes to educational policy, that data and findings don’t really matter, and that social science is not about inquiry but, rather, about enacting studies that give political support to received truth.

Folks on the right have played this research game for more than a decade now, releasing so-called “working paper” studies directly to the media in an effort to influence policy. In recent years, some folks on the left, seeing the effectiveness of this strategy, have begun to follow suit. If it works for our ends, what could be wrong?

Social science is a frail enough vessel to begin with. The more that social scientists are seen as “left-wing researchers” or “right-wing researchers,” the less value social science will have as a means for gaining understanding about social phenomena—and for informing policy choices.

We are already some ways down a slippery slope in this regard, as illustrated by the cynicism of people such as Jeanne Allen about the potential of science. The question for social scientists in both camps is this: Do you really want to keep going in this direction? And if not, what can we do to study the significant educational issues of our time in ways that can yield scientific, not ideological, findings?

David Marshak
College of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Page 42

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Protect Research From Devolving Into Ideology

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