The Grammys, the Oscars… and now the Bunkum Awards (update)

(Update: Below is a response from Public Agenda, which was awarded a Bunkum)

February is the month of the Grammy Awards for music and the Academy Awards for movies and, now, the Bunkum Awards.

Presented by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the awards are given for what the presenters say is bad educational research. How bad? Given that a great deal of educational research is bad, the winners have to shock the sensibilities of the awarders.

The awards get their name, Bunkum, from Buncombe County, N.C., where, in 1820, Rep. Felix Walker delivered a long-winded speech that became known for its utter uselessness. The word “bunkum” thereafter referred to long-winded nonsense, the policy center explained.

Following is a list of the winners. You also can watch the awards being announced in a video. Each of the explanations of the winners includes a link to a review by the National Education Policy Center of each of the studies that won a Bunkum.

The “Three’s a Harm” Award went to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice’s report “The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools.”

From the center:

 The School Staffing Surge hits the Bunkum trifecta with its inaccurate information, erroneous reasoning and sheer audacity. According to the report, public school test scores and dropout numbers did not improve between 1992 and 2009, notwithstanding a doubling of school staffing. NEPC’s reviewer refutes these claims and actually points to a clear improvement in scores for all student subgroups, particularly students of color and younger students. Moreover, graduation rates increased, helping to raise college attendance to historic highs.

 

Based on its flawed research, the report makes unsupported recommendations; it calls for cuts in administrative and teaching staff, for increased school choice and for class size increases. Yet as the reviewer points out, U.S. public school classes are already larger than those in the private schools the Friedman Foundation touts. “Smaller class sizes are apparently only bad and wasteful when they are in public schools,” said Kevin Welner, director of NEPC.

 

But the chutzpah doesn’t stop there. The report then sets forth its recommendations, including the obligatory call for increased school choice – which has little if anything to do with the report’s data.

The “Trust Us, There’s a Pro-Voucher Result Hiding in Here Somewhere” Award was given to Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University for their report, “The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City.

From the center:

This report’s raison d’être was to make the case that an old (now expired) New York City voucher policy, providing $1,400 per year for up to three years to subsidize attendance at private elementary schools, made a positive impact. Although the authors generally came up empty and had to acknowledge that the vouchers had a “tiny insignificant impact,” they trumpeted a cherry-picked result from one piece of information for one subgroup: college attendance of African Americans.

 

In truth, contrary to the claims that vouchers had a positive effect on college attendance of African Americans, there were no statistical differences between ethnic groups. The data do suggest the possibility that the vouchers had a differential and positive impact for African Americans. But that’s not at all how the researchers presented their results.

 

“Had Chingos and Peterson framed the finding from African Americans as an encouraging exploratory hypothesis deserving of further testing, I would not have been alarmed by the report,” explained the NEPC reviewer. “But the study’s results absolutely do not merit headlines such as ‘Vouchers promote college attendance for African Americans.’”

The “Noblesse Oblige” Award is presented to Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, Michael Remaley and Jeremiah Hess and the Public Agenda Foundation for “What’s Trust Got to Do With It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools.”

From the center:

It’s not an easy thing to convince people to do things against their common sense and best interests. But Public Agenda stepped up to the plate with this report providing strategies for just that: how to “engage” with members of communities and convince them to go along with externally imposed so-called “turnarounds” of their schools.

 

The report presents parents as ignorant about their community schools’ deficiencies and as obstacles to outsiders’ turnaround efforts, which often include massive teacher layoffs and school closings or privatization.

 

“The report completely ignores the evidence warning policy makers that so-called turnaround strategies don’t actually work to benefit communities,” explained Welner.

 

Interestingly, in focus groups conducted by the researchers, community members accurately identified problems of inadequate resources, as well as significant hurdles faced by their impoverished communities. Further, as the report’s authors note, “There was also a strong sense among the parents we interviewed that, in their view, the communities themselves should be seen as sources of new thinking.”

 

Unfortunately, the report never addresses these core problems and never suggests truly valuing local ideas.

 

“What’s Trust Got to Do With It? is, therefore, ironically titled. The biggest problem is in the authors’ complete lack of trust in the views of the parents.

The “Scary Black Straw Man” Award goes to Katherine Kersten and the Center for the American Experiment for “Our Immense Achievement Gap: Embracing Proven Remedies While Avoiding a Race-Based Recipe for Disaster.”

From the policy center:

Using apocalyptic language throughout her report, the author alludes to a “train wreck” and massive “liabilities” and a “race-based recipe for disaster” if state policymakers, in their zeal to pursue race-based school reform policies, continue colluding with advocates for desegregation, busing and school funding.

 

“Our Immense Achievement Gap” addresses reports by the Minnesota Department of Education and others on concentrated poverty and segregation. These reports suggest policies such as a continuation of existing pro-diversity efforts and the encouragement of voluntary fair housing and magnet school programs. The Center for the American Experiment’s counter-report does not address these seemingly sensible proposals and instead sets up straw men in the form of “busing” and mandated “de-segregation.” Neither of these policies was recommended by any of the targeted reports.

 

Curiously, despite being highly critical of desegregation and integration programs, the report provides a shoddy and unbalanced literature review to discredit these efforts.

 

“What brought tears of appreciation to our judges’ eyes was the lengthy, heart-rending and compassionate soliloquy about the need to rectify the injustice of the achievement gap – followed by an equally passionate rejection of initiatives sensibly designed to close it,” Welner said. “By raising obtuseness to the level of performance art, the Center for the American Experiment clearly merits this Bunkum.”

 

RESPONSE FROM PUBLIC AGENDA:

As the organization responsible for “What’sTrust Got to Do With It?,” we at Public Agenda believe the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is presenting an unfair and piecemeal depiction the report ["The Grammys, the Oscars… and now the Bunkum Awards," The Answer Sheet, Feb. 24].

Our study, which we invite people to read on our website, addresses the pressing need for school districts to open honest, two-way conversations with parents and community members concerning proposals to close low-performing schools.

As the report puts it: “Ending the cycle of failure at these schools is a daunting challenge and a surprisingly controversial one. There is an intense expert debate on which kinds of reform are most likely to be successful and an uneven track record for even the most earnest attempts at school turnarounds. Communities and situations differ, and few experts would argue that one kind of solution fits all.”

NEPC itself acknowledges that we report the strong sense among parents that school leaders too often ignore their views. We also explain why parents see closing schools as such an extreme and ultimately damaging measure.

Our call is for leaders to listen to parents and community members and take their views seriously. We also believe that parents should consider the full range of alternatives for improving the schools their children attend. In our view the best solutions will emerge if schools, parents and the wider community build common ground and work together.

Will Friedman, President, Public Agenda

Jean Johnson, Senior Fellow, Public Agenda

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 24, 2013