School & District Management Commentary

Don’t Let Partisanship Overshadow Fact-Finding

By Michael J. Feuer — November 01, 2016 5 min read

Readers of Ron Chernow’s masterful biography of Alexander Hamilton will recall the bitter partisanship and personal smearing of that era, and the effectiveness of media—two centuries before Twitter—in arousing and diffusing contempt for political leaders. Still, the 2016 presidential campaign has sunk us to a new low. I don’t have the hard data, but my hunch is that we have rarely been victimized by as many outright lies, shady half-truths, and devious distortions of common rhetorical decency. Americans are accustomed to extravagant rhetoric—companies spend billions of dollars in advertising campaigns claiming their products are the best—but our capacity for contained cynicism is being tested.

As Stanford University professor Nathaniel Persily and SurveyMonkey research chief Jon Cohen wrote in a Washington Post op-ed essay last month about their recent findings: “Large numbers of Americans across party lines have lost faith in their democracy, and many will not accept the legitimacy of this election.”

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Fortunately, our bedrock belief in American constitutional principles seems sturdy. These researchers noted that “even though faith in democracy may be waning, things have been worse (during the Civil War, for example), and we are not close to where infamous European regimes were when they traded democracy for dictatorship.” Still, the idea that Donald Trump should cause us to wonder if America is close to the brink of fascism is chilling.

This erosion of trust has a flip side. Not only is the general public suspicious of what they hear from candidates and incumbents, but government leaders also increasingly have trouble trusting the information they themselves rely on. Granted, many policymakers, in education and other areas, surround themselves with vetted advisers whose recommendations predictably reinforce partisan dogma; if the information they receive is untrustworthy, that’s in part a self-inflicted wound.

At the same time, though, we had—and still have—honest and dedicated leaders who approach the challenges of governance with grace, dignity, and a genuine willingness to treat complex questions with an objective and inquiring openness. Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes to mind. Among his distinctions as a professor, ambassador, presidential adviser, and senator, perhaps the most significant was his commitment to the infusion of social science evidence into political discourse. A lovely turn of phrase is commonly attributed to him: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

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As Yogi Berra might have said, if Pat Moynihan were alive today, he would surely be turning over in his grave.

Can the healthy appetite for reliable information be satisfied in today’s partisan environment? Fortunately, there is a brighter side to what appears to be a grand, national celebration of ignorance: Our policymaking infrastructure thrives on a unique and unprecedented demand for objective evidence. By conservative estimates, we spend upwards of $5 billion a year on data collection and research aimed at infusing empirical knowledge into even the most highly charged and value-laden decisions.

Here I am referring to the funds allocated to independent research organizations, such as the American Institutes for Research, the RAND Corp., SRI International, the Urban Institute, and the National Academies. If you include the sizable federal budget that supports science in American universities and the corporate sector, that estimate explodes into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Ideology and religion are ever present in big policy debates—think of climate change and reproductive rights—but scientific evidence fills news stories and congressional testimony. It seems, indeed, that while Americans occasionally flirt with stupidity, they prefer to purchase knowledge.

Can the healthy appetite for reliable information be satisfied in today's partisan environment?"

Our reliance on independent expertise to inform government has deep cultural and historical roots, with the founding of organizations such as the American Philosophical Society in 1743, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1848. These were inventions of statesmen who believed that science was essential to the public good. With the 1863 chartering of the National Academy of Sciences, the idea that improved policymaking could benefit from nonpartisan, scientific input gained congressional and presidential affirmation. The National Academy of Education, founded in 1965, was inspired by the ideals and products of the National Academy of Sciences.

Our “advice industry” has blossomed, and by recent estimates we now have close to 2,000 “think tanks” in the United States, providing analyses and interpretations of data on just about every imaginable policy issue. (There are more than 6,000 such organizations worldwide.) In education, research organizations play a significant role in the policy discourse. Complaints about the quality of education research notwithstanding, debates over school reform, teacher quality, standards, assessment, early learning, class size, achievement, inequality, workforce development, college affordability, and much more all involve arguments about empirical evidence supplied by our robust research and evaluation infrastructure. Useful evidence is a core aspiration of education research.

Especially in an era of high anxiety about the trustworthiness of political rhetoric, the protection of the ideals of independent, objective, nonpartisan evidence to inform policy should be a high priority. Ironically, the growth in the size and complexity of the evidence and advice sector poses risks to its sustainability. Competition for public and private financial support, for example, may create incentives for researchers and their organizations to tailor their programs and spin their results to suit perceived preferences of their funders.

In education, the combined pressures of increasingly “strategic” and ideologically oriented philanthropy, coupled with flat or shrinking public funding for basic and applied research, threaten the credibility of education research as a guide to policy and practice. Acknowledging these dangers is the first step toward devising remedies. Fortunately, two centuries of experimentation with institutions and arrangements aimed at challenging dogma and partisanship with objective evidence provides a sturdy foundation upon which to explore innovative strategies.

We will survive this extraordinary campaign and, hopefully, elect a new administration and legislators committed to democracy and good government. Partisanship will surely continue—it’s what democracy is all about—and though ideologues and fanatics will always be looking for data to support their preconceived beliefs, the idea that objective information will play a role in our future must remain one of our greatest aspirations. Let us commit to reopening the discussion about how to ensure a safe place for evidence in the next round of education policy.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as Whither Evidence?

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