School Choice & Charters Opinion

Charter School Funders Shouldn’t Be Paying for Research on Charter Schools, Should They?

By Dave Powell — October 22, 2016 6 min read
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This morning I got into a short Twitter conversation with Benjamin Riley, the founder and executive director of an organization called “Deans for Impact.” I don’t know much about Riley or his work, except that I know he has an interest in “improving student learning outcomes by transforming the field of teacher preparation.” Me too.

At any rate, our conversation this morning started with a tweet posted by Andy Hargreaves, who teaches in the school of education at Boston College. Here’s what Hargreaves said:

Hargreaves’ point is easy enough to see: the people who fund charter schools are often the same ones who fund research on charter schools. The implication is that there may be conflicts of interest involved here. If you’re already funding an enterprise and you’re also funding the research being produced to support claims that the enterprise is viable—if, in other words, the research you paid for is being used to make “evidence-based” claims that the schools you’re also paying for are good schools—then it’s reasonable to ask if one hand isn’t washing the other. In a field as contentious as this one, where public funds are diverted from traditional schools to charters (or shared with them, depending on your perspective) often on the basis of claims made in research studies, it’s imperative that this question get asked.

Riley’s response to Hargreaves’ tweet was surprising. He came back with this observation:

Fair enough. If no one else will study your work, sometimes you have to pay for it. I guess I could see making that argument in a world where no one was willing to investigate the effectiveness of charter schools (which does not seem to be the case), and where research wasn’t being deployed to justify the legitimacy of experiments in education that are based on promises that seem very difficult to keep. But let’s run with it. The thing is that paying for research changes the incentive structure, and if you are funding research on yourself two things are likely to happen. One is that you may be more inclined to select researchers who are already sympathetic to your principles and cause. The other is that you may be disinclined to release the results of research studies that call your work into question. This is why so much educational research originates in colleges and universities: because researchers in those settings are paid by their employers to produce research in the public interest. Yes, their research may occasionally be funded by outsiders (increasingly true now that state support for higher education is shrinking), but the sources of that funding are always expected to be disclosed. Potential conflicts of interest, as they should be, are taken very seriously.

My tweet, of course, was much shorter than what I just wrote, and it elicited a follow up from Riley. I said: “That’s one way to spin it. Of course, if you’re paying for research that changes the incentives a little doesn’t it?” To which he replied:

I don’t want to ascribe too much meaning to this statement—it was, after all, a tweet dashed off on Saturday morning—but I was taken aback by it. What Riley seems to be saying here is that it doesn’t matter who funds research studies, let alone whether there are conflicts of interest involved in their creation. What matters is that the studies be made public, because once they’re subjected to public scrutiny people will be able to judge for themselves whether or not the results are valid. The phrase that immediately entered my head when I read this was “we report, you decide.”

That phrase, of course, is problematic for a number of reasons. One is illustrated in the premise of our whole conversation: funders of charters are, at least according to Hargreaves, often the same people who fund research on charters. There may in fact be no conflict of interest there at all (even if it’s hard to believe) but the idea that objective, independent research on charter schools can be produced in a highly charged political environment by people who are being funded by the charter funders themselves seems like a stretch. The notion that news personalities or even researchers simply “report” what they see ignores the perspectives they bring to their work and the choices they make in producing it. It’s up to researchers to disclose their perspectives, biases, and conflicts of interest, not up to the public to ferret them out.

Which leads us to the “you decide” piece. Riley’s suggestion seems to be that an informed public (to be fair, I think he means educated people with a stake in the issue) will expose the potential ethical conerns that may come with particular studies, but in reality even other researchers rarely have all the information they need to make such informed judgments. Reporters and opinion writers, for example, often rely on friendly sources to make the claims they make; we might like to think they perform due diligence and check for conflicts of interest, but it’s clear that this is not always the case. Moreover, not all research studies are peer reviewed. In fact, many seemingly credible organizations out there conduct their own research studies and surveys and post them on the internet without ever engaging in the formal peer review process at all. How many people might read and share a study before a legitimate researcher comes across it to question its validity? How many in-house white papers are put forward by organizations purporting to share research findings objectively when they are actually pushing a perspective on an issue?

The bottom line is that ethical research is ethical research, and it’s crucial to agree on what it looks like if we want to really get to the bottom of the question of whether or not charter schools are effective replacements for traditional schools. As it stands, the research on charters is mixed, at best; if the claim Hargreaves cited is true—if, in fact, many charter funders are also funding studies on charters, presumably to support their investments (I can’t imagine they are funding research studies hoping that they’ll find out their money was wasted)—then the research on charter school effectiveness seems likely to be more tilted against effectiveness than it appears to be. The research he referred to could quite easily be enough to sway public opinion and encourage legislators to pass laws appropriating funds to charters on the grounds that they’re doing what the research tells them to do. Think about that for a minute.

In Riley’s defense, he did clarify later in our conversation what he meant by public scrutiny: he was referring to scrutiny from other researchers and “professional/peer accountability in the research community.” Again, though, I don’t think that’s enough. The habit of picking and choosing facts to suit a pre-determined view of reality is one that has infiltrated our politics and culture. We’d be smart to at least try to keep it out of our education system if we can. That has to begin by applying clear standards for ethical scholarship. I’m not reflexively opposed to charters or school choice—not by a long shot. I am, however, opposed to the idea that we shouldn’t be able to rely on the research community to ethically and responsibly help us understand whether charter schools are actually delivering on the promises they’ve made.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.