Project to vet education reports for bias
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
A group of education researchers recently launched a project to review education reports released by private think tanks to judge the quality of their research, the accuracy of their conclusions and expose any ideological bias. But some targets of the project contend that its motives and objectivity are suspect.
The project is a joint effort of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the University of Colorado's Education and Public Interest Center. It will critique studies of topical education issues, which are often published without undergoing independent peer reviews.
"Calling these reports to account brings more discipline to what's become kind of a 'wild west' of scholarly writing," said University of Illinois education professor Christopher Lubienski, one of the participants in what is being called the Think Tank Review Project. It plans to provide policymakers and the news media with "expert reviews" of major education studies within two weeks of a report's release.
Think Tank Review Project co-director Kevin Welner, who also heads the Education and Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the reports that will be scrutinized are generally generated by private think tanks. While they often gain media attention and influence policymakers, they have very little credibility among academic researchers, he said.
Many think tanks were founded to advance particular political agendas and have become adept at presenting ideological arguments disguised as research, Welner said.
"Reporters and policymakers are not in the position to do their own detailed analysis of the methodology and data when they read these reports, so they're left to just trust the institutions that produce them," Welner told Stateline.org.
"Think tank" usually refers to an organization that claims to be a center of research and analysis of public policy issues, according to Sourcewatch.org, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. But it said "many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts... generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors."
The Think Tank Review Project is itself funded by a think tank, which raises questions about its own political bias, some education advocates said. The project's funding comes from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, an East Lansing, Mich.-based group founded by the Michigan Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.
Critics say it's no coincidence that the first three reviews conducted by the project, which were released in March online at http://thinktankreview.org , criticized reports released by well-known conservative think tanks on issues opposed by teachers' unions.
The reviews cover reports by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research evaluating Florida's plan to end social promotion; the Cato Institute and the Milton & Rose Friedman Foundation, in praise of the Washington, D.C., school voucher program; and a report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute that called for higher standards rather than increased funding to boost achievement in Wisconsin's high schools.
Eric A. Hanushek, a senior scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, one of the groups being monitored by the project, said it is appropriate for researchers and advocates to review each other's work. However, Hanushek said that news media should be aware that groups such as the Think Tank Review Project also have a political agenda.
"I don't take their criticism very seriously because I don't think it's anything more than a self-interested attempt to get publicity for their positions," Hanushek said.
Welner said the project's reviewers are independent scholars who probably do not know the source of the project's funding and are not pressured by the Great Lakes Center.
He said the project only reviews reports based on empirical data which can be analyzed objectively by qualified social scientists. He said the purpose is not to uncover "ideological bias," but to identify quality research.
Among the groups being monitored by the project are the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City, the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy , and the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation and the Center for Education Reform, which are based in Washington, D.C.
The project will focus on reports that cover topics including tuition vouchers for private schools, charter schools, teacher quality, standardized testing, the federal No Child Left Behind act and education financing.