School & District Management

Obama’s ESEA Plan Short on Research, Authors Allege

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 29, 2010 3 min read
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The Obama administration’s education plan lacks a solid research basis for its proposals, a new book says.

The Obama Education Blueprint: Researchers Examine the Evidence is the first major effort from the National Education Policy Center, a university-based research organization in Boulder, Colo., that critiques the work of prominent think tanks. (“Think-Tank Critics Plant a Stake in Policy World,” this issue.)

In the book, scholars take a look at the six research summaries the administration released in May in support of its blueprint—a guiding document it sent to Congress in March to explain its vision of the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law on K-12 education. (“Administration Unveils ESEA Reauthorization Blueprint,” March 16, 2010.)

The researchers found “the overall quality of the summaries is far below what is required for a national policy discussion of critical issues.”

See Also

Read a related story about recent debates over the quality of think tank research, “Think-Tank Critics Launch Policy Center.”

“Each of the summaries was found to give overly simplified, biased, and too brief explanations of complex issues,” co-editors William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner, both University of Colorado at Boulder academicians, write in the book’s introduction.

Mr.Welner, who is also the NEPC’s director, said the book is aimed at informing the discussion about the administration’s policies.

“It’s not that I don’t like a lot of the ideas and want to see them be successful,” he said. “But when the government makes statements that something is supported by research and it isn’t, that’s an important message to get across.”

Mr. Welner and the other authors say the U.S. Department of Education relied too heavily on the work of advocacy groups to bolster claims and showed a strong focus on the use of standardized-test scores without justifying their use as a valid measure of learning and school success.

The researchers also note a lack of research provided for two key pieces of the blueprint: the accountability system that is to replace the “adequate yearly progress” measure under the No Child Left Behind Act and the four models school districts are to use to turn around low-performing schools.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment on the book’s critiques.

Clive R. Belfield, an economics professor at Queens College, City University of New York, for example, is critical of the way well-known Stanford University studies on charter schools were used.

“Its overall summary of the charter school literature claims that ‘while many charters perform significantly better than state averages, many perform worse.’” he writes. “This may be a legitimate conclusion, but it is not a valid inference from just these two studies. Indeed, its legitimacy rests primarily on the variation in the contexts in which charter schools operate and on the variation in methods researchers have used to evaluate them.”

Emphasis on Data

Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, rejected the book’s argument.

“You can always have an academic debate about the relative strength or weaknesses of any policy,” said Mr. Barone, a former top Democratic congressional aide. “This administration has reached as broadly as possible to incorporate what is known about what works and tried to implement it.”

“The blueprint doesn’t push specific policies as it undergirds every policy and practice in schools with the use of data,” he said. “How that is at odds with research is beyond me.”

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, said the Obama administration is no different from past administrations or Congress in moving forward public policy absent a strong research foundation.

“It’s almost always the case that policy formation and implementation is out in front of the evidence base,” he said. “You can’t sit on your hands and do nothing if you think something needs to be done and you have been elected to do something.”

But Mr. Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences, said it still concerns him when the administration presents its education policies as evidence-based.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week as Scholars Dissect Research Behind ESEA Blueprint

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