Can Education Research Save Us? An Upbeat View

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008; 6:36 AM

Editor's note: With today's column, Class Struggle from Jay Mathews moves to Mondays from Tuesdays, to coincide with the Post's weekly Schools & Learning page in the newspaper's Metro section.

The only reason this column has enough space and I have enough desire to write about education research -- a sleep-inducing topic for most newspaper people -- is that I have access to the infinite pages of the Internet. No editor has ever objected to my fondness for dorky subjects like international test comparisons or teacher effectiveness reports because I am not intruding on space reserved for more reader-attracting topics like the Redskins, the presidential race and which movie star is shooting a film on the Mall this week.

If I did not get as much space as I do, there would be little incentive to discuss the Richard Rothstein/Rebecca Jacobsen critique of the KIPP schools or the Saul Geiser/Veronica Santelices report on the impact of Advanced Placement on college success. I could not provide enough detail to do them justice. I suppose I could just write short stories in the newspaper that referred readers to the full reports online, but do YOU really feel like leaping up from your nice warm morning bagel to log on and search and print?

When I try to write about research in the newspaper, with its limited space, I often get into trouble. Attempts to summarize complex data are often misinterpreted. Scholars pick fights with each other. My editors wonder whether it is really worth the trouble.

From the editors: Not true! We devour all those news tips we get in our email about the latest from the AERA. That's the American Educational Research Association for those who aren't in the know. It's scintillating stuff. Back to you, Jay.

So here comes Columbia University political scientist Jeffrey R. Henig, in a new book, saying I should keep trying but strive to do better. He insists that education researchers, journalists and policy makers can learn to communicate well and that readers will benefit.

Henig is professor of political science and education at Teachers College of Columbia University. He interviewed many education researchers and journalists, including me, for the book, "Spin Cycle: How Research Gets Used in Policy Debates, The Case of Charter Schools," 288 pages, $21.45 on amazon.com. It is well-written, and makes good use of its central case study--how the educational research community got into a spectacular shouting match over an Aug. 17, 2004, story in The New York Times by Diana Jean Schemo, "Charter Schools Trail in Results, U.S. Data Reveals."

At the time I thought Schemo's story was interesting, and the harsh words exchanged by various scholars seemed to be just more of what I had been seeing for years when journalists, myself included, write stories that seem to favor one side over the other. Henig's account of the controversy brings all that out, but then he points out many new approaches that could have turned the charter school data into something that raised understanding, rather than sowed confusion.

Among his suggestions, five have potential, if you believe that research and journalism operate under Darwinist laws in which the most productive of our practices gradually replace less sensible routines. He thinks we would do better if the federal government gave up on education policy, if researchers were encouraged to focus more on subjects that interested journalists, if scholars stopped wishing for the killer study that changes everything, if we had an education journal with the quality and prestige of the New England Journal of Medicine and if we had more faith in our readers' interest in research findings without any immediate relevance to the latest hot issues.

Expecting the feds to butt out of education debates, forget about No Child Left Behind and let states carry the load seems somewhat unrealistic, but consider: When is the last time you heard any presidential candidate spend more than a minute discussing education in any debate? Henig notes that once issues like charter schools acquire a state-level focus, they become more concrete and more likely to inspire discussion that actually produces better schools.

Henig doesn't say research should be designed just for reporters like me, but he says something close that. He proposes that policy researchers "be trained to think more like political actors and encouraged to frame their research questions in terms that facilitate their incorporation into the spheres of politics and governance." He has some good ideas, like putting more emphasis on peer review. I think even journalists would benefit from showing complicated stories to experts before putting them in the paper.

The mystique of the killer study, which Henig decries, is similar to the software industry's search for the killer application. This is the strongest point in the book. We expect too from big, expensive studies. "No single, randomized field trial, no matter how well conducted, could have settled the question of how charter schools perform under changing circumstances," Henig said.

We journalists would all love to see a very high quality education research journal that took on big topics with aplomb. And of course we all say our readers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and we should not be so worried about boring them. But it is going to take some time before we see much progress on either of these two final points.

When I talked to Henig about the book, took the pessimists' side of the argument, he pointed out that slow change is better than no change at all, and that there were dozens of issues about which researchers, journalists, policy makers and readers are much smarter now than before. Even 40 years ago, when I was just starting as a reporter, almost no one saw the possibility of success in welfare reform or low-income student achievement or smog control. They were all complex social, economic and educational issues generating a great deal of nonsense when discussed in campaigns or on television.

We have not perfected any of our approaches to those problems, but we have made much more progress than expected. Perhaps figuring out charter schools, and other educational issues rife with disagreement and bad data, won't be as hard as we think.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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