School & District Management

Greene Machine

By Sean Cavanagh — October 12, 2004 12 min read
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Researcher Jay Greene is turning out controversial education studies at a fast pace, even as critics question his objectivity

Most people learn early to trust the things they see firsthand, but Jay P. Greene adheres to a different creed: Our eyes lie to us. Perhaps nowhere, he says, is that visual betrayal as evident as it is in how we think about education.

Almost everyone has attended school, or sent a child to one. Those experiences shape our convictions, but they can also distort them, Greene suggests. And as the director of the education office of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, he is convinced that greater clarity lies in data and facts—even if those facts upend the established order along the way.

In recent years, few researchers have consistently produced as much influential, and some would say heretical, research on topics roiling education as the 37-year-old Greene, whose work has scrutinized subjects from dropout rates and bilingual education to charter schools and vouchers.

“I have kind of a contrarian impulse,” says Greene. “I tend to think that sometimes people assume things are true that are not. [It’s] attractive to me to find facts that will chip away at some of the non-fact-based world.”

Suspect assumptions, as he sees them, are everywhere: that private high schools are more segregated than public schools, or suburban schools more insulated from social ills than urban ones, or that today’s students are tougher to educate than those of a generation ago. In every case, Greene insists, his data show it’s just not so.

Sometimes, his approach yields striking results. A 2001 study by his office is widely credited with transforming the way dropout rates are calculated across the country—and with exposing the folly behind rosy estimates regularly touted by schools, districts, and states. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court cited Greene’s work describing the effectiveness of tuition vouchers four times in the majority’s landmark decision declaring the Cleveland voucher program constitutional.

Greene and two co-workers churn out reports from an office in a small shopping center, a few suburban highway exits outside Fort Lauderdale, which serves as a cramped outpost of the New York City-based Manhattan Institute. Their work flows at a rapid clip—they’ve produced at least 13 studies since 2002. And by their count, they’ve published 43 newspaper opinion pieces and been cited on radio, on television, or in print more than 500 times over the past year.

Nor is Greene timid about publicly ripping research he disagrees with, early and aggressively. Not surprisingly, few researchers provoke as consistently strong a reaction among their peers—in editorials, mass e-mails, and everyday conversation—as the otherwise affable, gregarious Greene.

“It presses buttons when you mention his name,” says

Henry M. Levin, an economics and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has quarreled with Greene’s findings on vouchers. Like many in the field, Levin admits to admiring some of his occasional antagonist’s work, though he jokingly likens it to “drinking Listerine.”

“He has a very strong party line on issues of [school] choice,” Levin says. “I never expect to find him doing a study where public, nonchoice schools are doing better. … There tends to be an ideological dimension to his work that even very bright people, and maybe especially bright people, are susceptible to.”

It is a Wednesday afternoon in late September in South Florida, and Greene, who is releasing a new report this day, does not like what he sees on his computer screen. The trouble isn’t a lame data set, or a burst of spam choking his e-mail. It’s Hurricane Ivan, a Category 4 storm hovering in the Atlantic and inching ever closer to the coast, as a red, swirling blob on satellite radar.

“Well, I don’t know,” Greene murmurs, shaking his head. “I don’t know if we’re going to get it.”

Peering over his shoulder, colleagues Greg Forster and Marcus Winters study the shifting red shape with a resigned look, before heading back to their desks. Like other Floridians, by now they’ve adopted a fatalistic approach to storm watching. Just two days earlier, Hurricane Frances skirted the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, knocking out power, snapping trees, and blanketing streets with palm leaves.

Greene in Print

Selected opinions from Jay Greene on some of the top issues in education:

On vouchers, National Review Online, Sept. 30, 2004:

“Vouchers in Milwaukee are keeping a lot more kids in school. … [They] result in higher test scores for both the kids who use them and the kids who remain in public schools. Other cities could do well to learn from Milwaukee’s example.”

On smaller class sizes, New York Post, June 12, 2003:

“The [New York City] teachers unions are circulating a new petition to push their perennial pet cause: reducing class sizes. Never mind that various efforts across the country to shrink classes have consumed rivers of money and produced no discernable improvements in education outcomes.”

On dropout rates, The Gadfly, Nov. 29, 2001:

"[H]onesty is often a casualty of war. Alas, it also appears to be a frequent casualty of K-12 education data. Graduation statistics reported by federal, state, and local school districts are especially confusing, misleading, and implausibly optimistic.”

On bilingual education, 1998 study, University of Texas at Austin:

“Children with limited English proficiency who are taught using at least some of their native language perform significantly better on standardized tests than similar children taught only in English. … [B]ilingual education helps children who are learning English.”

On school segregation, “Civic Values in Public and Private Schools,” 1998 essay:

“Even in the rural South private schools are less well-integrated because they have concentrations of too many minority students, not too few. Throughout the rest of the country, private schools are better able to produce a racial mix in classrooms that is closer to the national percentage of minority students than are the public schools in their areas.”

Luckily for Greene—who is clad in loafers, khakis, and a checkered short-sleeved shirt—the storm-free interlude has left enough time for issuing “The Teachability Index,” a 35-page report co-written with Forster. The study is a state-by-state analysis of the relative advantages and disadvantages today’s students face in trying to succeed academically, compared with previous generations.

Greene and his staff are bringing their results to the press, and quickly. An embargoed press release is already out. Two whiteboards on their office walls lay out the timeline for sending follow-up e-mails. Another section of the board lays out “planes on the runway,” or studies in the works (not far from a list of recent Major League Baseball World Series champions).

“The board controls the universe,” Winters says with a grin. “We’re very protective of the board.”

They’re less vigilant about the overall look of their workspace, a windowless suite they speculate may have served as a dentist’s office in a former life. Winters sits in what may have been the receptionist’s cubicle; Greene and Forster occupy adjoining rooms behind him, where someone presumably once spent days extracting molars. A fax machine sits on a file cabinet. Past studies are stacked on a nearby shelf. Muffled voices, and occasional thuds, reverberate through the walls from neighboring offices.

So far today, reaction to the teachability index is encouraging. A USA Today story appearing on the heels of the study’s embargo mentions the findings. Several other newspapers, including TheDes Moines Register and the Rocky Mountain News, have articles running, too.

But then critics begin to weigh in. The report presents “hypotheses as if they were facts,” and it uses “insinuations and out-of-context quotes” in a “despicable” broadside attack on other scholars, writes Gerald W. Bracey, a longtime education researcher, in an e-mail shipped to reporters and academics. Noting that the report was not reviewed by others in the field before publication, Bracey says Greene’s aim is to get his “slanted statement into the press first. Once the damage is done, people will have a hard time getting the truth known.”

While he refrains from responding to Bracey directly, Greene has heard like-minded condemnations before. While many education researchers follow the process of peer review—the practice of having others in the field critique one’s work before publication—Greene contends that the benefits of that route are exaggerated. Those reviewers are themselves sometimes biased, he argues; they often add little to the accuracy or value of the study; and above all, the process is slow. He wants his office’s work to speak to the relevant education issues of today—not those of two or more years ago.

As a result, Greene releases many of his studies, such as the teachability index, as “working papers,” which have not been peer-reviewed. Many of them are eventually subjected to that process, though he notes that what is probably his most widely praised work—the dropout study—was not peer-reviewed.

Greene’s detractors say his approach sacrifices accuracy for speed and, above all, publicity. Some of that criticism, Levin acknowledges, is probably fueled by jealousy of Greene’s sheer productivity, and his skill in appealing to reporters—an awkward, frustrating ritual for some academics. “Jay has a way of packaging his research in a way that gets attention,” the Teachers College scholar says. “The question is, why should an education researcher who comes out with a controversial piece just have a beeline to the press?”

The peer-review debate was particularly hot in late August, when Greene was one of 31 signatories to a paid advertisement in The New York Times, chiding the newspaper for an earlier story about a report critical of charter schools. The ad, which also later ran in Education Week, said reports backed by “interest groups” (in this case, a union, the American Federation of Teachers) needed to be “vetted by independent scholars”—a philosophy Greene’s critics immediately charged he doesn’t live by. Greene responded by saying he simply meant that reporters needed to seek outside, potentially critical comments about such reports when writing about them.

Others suspect that Greene skews his data to produce results that consistently match the views of political conservatives. Those accusations sometimes focus on his position with the Manhattan Institute, a think tank with a generally conservative or free-market outlook that covers a broad range of social issues. Critics say Greene’s work almost uniformly attacks regular public schools and policies he deems to reflect the educational status quo, while consistently praising alternatives such as vouchers and charters.

Earlier this year, Greene’s office strongly criticized a report by the Century Foundation, a research organization based in New York City that focuses on economic inequality and other issues, which detailed how rising college costs were excluding needy students from higher education. In a press release, Greene’s office countered that its own research had found that the worries raised by the study were greatly exaggerated, and that inadequate academic preparation, not cost, is the main barrier to college.

“He has a very elitist bias in his work,” says Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington think tank that studies a broad range of school and workforce issues. He contributed to the Century Foundation report. “On that particular study, I don’t think he went deep enough,” he says of Greene’s views on college access.

Nonetheless, Carnevale, a widely read scholar, voices admiration for much of Greene’s work, particularly on dropouts. Greene’s study compared 8th grade enrollment data with estimates of high school diplomas issued, adjusting for population changes and other factors. The result: a nationwide graduation rate of only 71 percent, compared with other estimates that topped 85 percent.

“We were all asleep at the switch until he did something,” Carnevale says.

Noting that he himself is sometimes accused of having a liberal bent, Carnevale says Greene should be judged by his methodology, not any perceived political leaning. “He’s a workman who’s true to his tools,” Carnevale says. “I pay attention to what he does. If he says it, I go look.”

Greene counters critics by pointing out that his results often defy conservative doctrine. One study found bilingual education more effective than English-only instruction. Another found only modest advantages in mainstream charter schools over comparable regular public schools.

And, in fact, Greene is a registered Democrat, though he says that he has switched party affiliations periodically to vote in primaries that intrigue him. His three children—ages 6, 9, and 10—all attend a Jewish school, primarily for religious reasons.

“I understand this is how people try to score points in a political debate, but whatever people try to call me, facts are facts,” Greene says. Past claims of bias, he says, “just reinforced my notion that what I was doing was useful and relevant. Anything useful and relevant would be dangerous to some people.”

A native of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, Greene has deep ties to schools. His mother was a special education teacher, and his grandmother was a librarian. After graduating summa cum laude from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and earning his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard in 1995, Greene took his family’s teaching legacy to the University of Houston, where he became an assistant professor of political science, before moving to the University of Texas at Austin a few years later.

His first firm step into education research came in 1996, when he co-wrote a study with his graduate school mentor, the Harvard University professor of government Paul E. Peterson. The study found that students in Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program, most of them members of minority groups, showed higher test results than their public school peers. Those conclusions, which contradicted earlier research showing no such improvements, were a godsend to advocates of private school choice.

Greene recalls his college teaching days fondly, but eventually, outside factors led him away from academia. He and his wife, Aleza, wanted better services for their eldest son, Avi, who has a high-functioning form of autism. They wound up leaving Austin for his wife’s native Florida, where the Manhattan Institute allowed Greene to set up a satellite office.

Today, Avi attends traditional classes at his school and receives some special services. Greene says his work today is probably influenced more by his overall experience as a parent than by his direct experiences with special education, though he admits having a particular interest in that topic.

In fact, his opinions in that area are characteristically strong. He has written that school officials habitually misclassify low-performing students as having learning disabilities—a pattern he suspects applies to autistic children, too. Schools may benefit from not having those students’ scores show up on test results, but the pattern ultimately diverts resources from families and students who need them the most, he says.

One of the things that appealed to Forster and Winters about working for Greene was the opportunity to tackle vital issues such as special education, as opposed to the stodgier, less relevant research that they believe is more prevalent in academe. Winters, 24, was hired straight out of undergraduate study at Ohio University; Forster, a 31-year-old whose academic specialty was the English philosopher John Locke, joined up after earning his Ph.D. from Yale University.

Greene’s research hub is anything but stodgy. Each of the offices is adorned with a different computer printout. “Greg Forster: In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,” reads one such sign, reflecting his two co-workers’ frustration with his unwavering logic. Outside Winters’ cubicle hangs a quote from Greene’s youngest son, Jonah: “I like Marcus. He’s really cool.” Near Greene’s door, there’s a reference to a fellow scholar’s remark about his productivity: “Jay Greene, Bionic Super Analyst.”

This September afternoon, as more inquiries about the teachability index roll in, Greene sits at his computer for a phone interview with a reporter for North Carolina’s Winston-Salem Journal. A calendar of famous abolitionists hangs on a wall beside him; a bookshelf is lined with tomes on behavioral statistics, race, and poverty. Propp ed on his desk is a photo given to him from voucher advocates showing them outside the Supreme Court. “Together we can change the world,” its inscription reads.

Greene isn’t predicting the teachability index will change the world, but he hopes it will deliver a message through data. “People in education should [dispense] with the excuse that students with disadvantages are impossible to teach,” he tells the reporter over the phone. At the least, if his latest study helps defeat a few dubious assumptions about education, he says in another conversation, he’ll consider it a victory.

“Any time someone is out there saying, ‘Kids are hard to teach,’ ” Greene says with a slight smile, “now people will say, ‘Is that right?’ ”


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