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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

How Bad Journalism Encourages Bad Education Research

Educators should beware overly credible reporting on suspect scholarship
By Rick Hess — March 11, 2024 3 min read
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This winter, I wrote about my concern that not enough education researchers do the kind of difficult, timely work that we so sorely need. One reason for this is that bad journalism—which is more common than I’d like—can dilute the rewards for careful, time-consuming scholarship while rewarding researchers for slapdash studies that advance self-serving agendas.

When I write things like this, readers sometimes (quite reasonably) ask, “Can you give me an example of what you mean?” Well, the other week, I ran across an especially jarring example. It was such a microcosm of getting this wrong that it’s worth discussing as an object lesson.

The story in question, “New Study: School Nurses Are Untapped Resource to Combat Chronic Absenteeism,” landed in my inbox as the lead story in the Feb. 27 issue of The 74.

After five paragraphs about a school nurse in Ohio, the story got around to the new study in question. It turns out that, four years ago, researchers at the University of Missouri studied 21 school nurses in Minnesota, concluding that students with a lot of part-day absences “seek out school nurses as a source of comfort and support.” Therefore, the researchers argue that nurses can help intervene before “absences become chronic.” It’s not a ridiculous assertion. And, in an era of rising chronic absenteeism, everyone is looking for promising solutions.

But it’s not obviously clear that this should be regarded as one of those solutions. How much do nurses actually help? What exactly do these nurses do that matters? How often do part-day absences lead to full-day absences, anyway? Unfortunately, the article is in the pay-walled Journal of School Nursing, so I wasn’t able to assess the details. But both The 74’s account and the study’s abstract make clear that the researchers are in no position to answer such questions—because they didn’t devote the requisite time, energy, or thought to them. And that is a problem.

It turns out that the study is based on “six online focus groups” conducted during the summer of 2020 that involved “nearly two dozen school nurses.” The nurses all worked in Minnesota, presumably because the study was “conducted in collaboration with the Minnesota Youth Sex Trading Project, which is associated with the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.” (The study is “new” in the sense that the article drawn from these early-pandemic focus groups was finally published this winter.)

The 74’s story approvingly quotes lead researcher Knoo Lee, a registered nurse, asserting, “We discovered something that we haven’t seen before, where school nurses ... have the potential to play a key role in terms of really helping out with chronic absenteeism.” Meanwhile, you’d look in vain for cautions about the validity, reliability, or generalizability of conclusions drawn from Lee’s half-dozen Zoom calls.

In fact, by the end of The 74’s account, I could only conclude that the “study” was mostly an excuse for Lee and his colleagues to garb a pretty predictable agenda in the guise of scholarship. Lee et al. reported that their handful of virtual focus groups revealed that “nurses are often left out of policy-making decisions and conversations,” that teachers need “greater support and resources to respond to ... mental health concerns, homelessness, lack of transportation, and food insecurity,” and that school systems need to hire more certified nurses and provide them with more supplies.

Look, it’s fine for nursing school professors to argue that schools should hire more nurses and give them more say and support. I’d expect nothing less. The problem is when these self-assured, self-interested directives are offered as “research,” with no more than token attention paid to collecting data, examining evidence, or testing assumptions.

Reporting on a handful of 4-year-old Zoom chats as a path-breaking new “study” gives the clear impression that the takeaways are “findings” and not just nursing school conventional wisdom. When credulous media outlets validate this kind of exercise by treating it as authoritative, it can make painstaking interviewing, extensive data collection, disciplined analysis, and careful parsing of conclusions look like a sucker’s game.

It’s hard to do justice to just how earnestly the reporter treated Lee’s supposed takeaways. And the consequences of this kind of journalism extend beyond the promotion of one silly study. For all those in education who lack the time or training to distinguish serious scholarship from its lazy imitators, this kind of reporting only blurs those lines. In doing so, it corrodes the credibility of both researchers and reporters. And that’s not good for anybody.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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