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Lerner’s Writings Raise Objectivity Concerns

By Michelle R. Davis — June 18, 2003 6 min read
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President Bush’s choice to be, in effect, the nation’s education data czar has a history of writing for conservative organizations and taking strong stands on controversial social issues, a body of work that has stirred questions about whether he would objectively sift statistics.

Robert Lerner, a Rockville, Md.-based social scientist who operates a quantitative-consulting business with his wife, has done studies on such varied topics as affirmative action, gay parenting, history textbooks, and criminal- acquittal rates by race. If confirmed by the Senate as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, he would serve a six-year term.

Mr. Bush announced his intention to nominate Mr. Lerner on June 2. (“Department’s No. 2 Official Stepping Down,” June 11, 2003.)

While many interested groups lauded the move toward installing an official leader at the NCES—the arm of the Department of Education has been without a permanent chief since 1999—the president’s choice of Mr. Lerner for the $134,000-a-year job has some worried that the NCES’ role as a nonpartisan, numbers-crunching institution could be compromised.

The NCES collects, analyzes, and reports education information and statistics on the condition and progress of education from preschool to higher education, as well as adult education and international comparisons. And the office oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s best source of comparative information on student performance across the 50 states.

“It would be a lot easier if the nominee were a person who was dedicated to data collection for the federal government, and whose positions of advocacy weren’t so obvious,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association. “It would be a shame to have people thinking that the person who is running the show had a particular ax to grind.”

Roger Clegg, the general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, called Mr. Lerner an “excellent choice,” however, and noted that while his work has provoked some disagreement, it has also carried a reputation for accuracy and precise methodology.

“It would be unfortunate if only social scientists who shied away from doing research in controversial areas were deemed fit for government appointment,” Mr. Clegg said. “After all, it’s the controversial areas that are most important.”

‘Filler Feminism’

Mr. Lerner, who did not return telephone calls for comment, has published more than 100 papers, articles, reports, and books on a wide variety of issues. Many were done with his research partner and wife, Althea K. Nagai, through their firm, Lerner and Nagai Quantitative Consulting.

He was also previously the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change, at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and taught at Syracuse and Johns Hopkins universities.

Recently, Mr. Lerner has weighed in with several studies of affirmative action practices by colleges and universities. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon hand down its decisions in two cases challenging the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policies, and Mr. Lerner’s studies have figured in the debate.

Many of the studies were done for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Sterling Va.-based think tank headed by Linda Chavez, briefly President Bush’s choice for secretary of labor and a leading opponent of affirmative action. Other studies were done for the Princeton, N.J.- based National Association of Scholars, a faculty organization that believes race-based admissions policies are divisive.

Mr. Lerner has not shied away from other politically charged issues. In 2001, he was co-author of a book about gay parenting, which scrutinized 49 earlier studies on the subject. Those studies had determined it made no difference whether a child’s family was headed by two partners of the same sex, and have often been cited in debates surrounding the issue.

But the Lerner book, No Basis: What the Studies Don’t Tell Us About Same- Sex Parenting, found what it said were flaws in nearly all the studies and said they should be discounted.

Mr. Lerner’s work on that book was done for the Marriage Law Project, a Washington-based group that “seeks to reaffirm marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” according to its Web site. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has called the book “anti-gay.”

In the area of K-12 education, Mr. Lerner in 1995 co-wrote a review of history textbooks for Lynne V. Cheney, then chairwoman of the Committee to Review National Standards, a private group of scholars. Ms. Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, used the study, which was later published as a book, in her efforts to scuttle the voluntary national history standards underwritten by the federal government.

In that book, Mr. Lerner found that race, ethnicity, and gender got three times as much emphasis as political freedom in contemporary textbooks and that the latest wave of history texts used what he termed “filler feminism” to inappropriately insert female historical figures into texts in lieu of purportedly more significant males.

Skills for the Job

The issues studied by Mr. Lerner often land squarely in the thick of political debates. That’s a concern, said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Independent and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Mr. Jeffords, who chaired that panel when he was still a Republican, has long expressed an interest in the NCES.

“The NCES commissioner should be apolitical,” Sen. Jeffords said in a statement. “It is important that NCES have a leadership team in place that will continue to provide policymakers and the public with the information needed to make sound education policy.”

A Senate education committee spokeswoman said no hearing on Mr. Lerner has been scheduled.

The NCES is supposed to be above the political fray. As the federal government’s gatherer of education data, “it has to be [an organization] that people believe has integrity and they can believe in,” said Emerson J. Elliott, who served as NCES commissioner from 1984 to 1995 under presidents of both parties and is now a consultant.

But some commissioners have been unable to avoid politics. Pascal D. Forgione Jr., now superintendent of the Austin, Texas, schools, was forced out of the position in 1999 after clashing with the Clinton administration over what Mr. Forgione saw as the politicization of a release of data. Since then, the agency has languished in leadership limbo, with career employees filling in.

Getting a permanent chief installed is imperative, said Maris A. Vinovskis, who wrote a book about the Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement, the predecessor to the agency within the department that the NCES falls under.

Mr. Vinovskis, a University of Michigan education historian, said he wasn’t concerned about Mr. Lerner’s politics. While unfamiliar with Mr. Lerner’s work specifically, he said he was glad to see a social scientist named for the job.

“Whether or not the questions this person worked on are controversial is less important than the skills and objectivity he brings to the job,” Mr. Vinovskis said. “If we can get a social scientist who understands the problems of doing large-scale data analysis, that would be terrific.”

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