Think Tanks, Celebrity Research, and the Dissolution of Education Knowledge

by Richard P. Phelps (2005)



A key component of our faith in progress is the corollary belief that our base of knowledge continually expands. That is, we know what we already know, and we are always learning more. In many fields of inquiry–the hard sciences, perhaps–this faith may well be justified.

In at least one other field of inquiry–education–this faith is naïve.

The continual expansion of knowledge requires both that the historical accumulation of knowledge be preserved and that new knowledge be welcomed. Neither is the case in education, where the most powerful decision makers have been and continue to be successful both in eradicating an historical accumulation of research and in censoring, or otherwise suppressing, most new research.

It is difficult to imagine how any other issue in education could be considered more important. Essentially, the American public does not have access to most of the accumulated wisdom about education, and the squeeze is getting tighter over time. Without access to information, it is difficult to see how American education can be empowering to any of its citizens. Empowerment, after all, depends on knowledge.

As things now work, the primary decision makers in education research can declare that black is white, day is night, and dark is light. They have successfully managed to create an artificial reality for U.S. education that, on many points, asserts the exact opposite of reality.

Up until a few years ago, I believed that the vested interests in U.S. public education (i.e., “the establishment”) were uniquely responsible for this dissolution of knowledge. Unlike their counterparts in most other professions, education professionals are responsible for evaluating their own performance. Educators collect, disseminate, and interpret the statistics by which educational progress is measured. Educators conduct the studies that evaluate the success of education initiatives. Current educators train future educators, in education schools. And, these activities are funded by naive, and mostly uninformed or uninterested, taxpayers rather than demanding shareholders or skeptical, prying investment analysts, as they would be in the private sector.

Sadly, however, the past several years provide ample evidence that the group sometimes called “the anti-establishment”–the Republican Party-affiliated education think tankers and academics--are every bit as censorial.

Two small groups–“the establishment” and the “anti-establishment”–often characterized by journalists as the (only) two sides in education debates, despite representing only tiny minorities of the populace--are jointly responsible for the dissolution of education knowledge.

Education is vitally important. It is essential to progress. And, it is being held hostage by intellectual gangs.

The Age of Scholarship is no more

Some argue that the Age of Chivalry never was, but I like to believe that there once was an Age of Scholarship in education research. Like the Age of Chivalry, the Age of Scholarship in education research is shrouded in the mists of a distant past. Decades ago, as the story goes, there were far fewer folk involved in education research and most them were psychologists by training. They knew each other, worked with each other, and treated each other civilly as equals. Political considerations did not intrude.

In the Age of Scholarship, education researchers were primarily interested in learning and discovery, in accumulating knowledge and understanding. They were interested in scientific progress and in improving the lot of humanity. Their open, curious culture would not tolerate the grandstanding, self-promotion, and predation so common in today’s education research world.

Few journalists paid attention to education research in the Age of Scholarship. But, those who did encountered deferential education researchers interested in promoting understanding by disseminating as much education research as possible, as widely as possible. The more narcissistic education researchers of today seem willing to claim expertise on any topic if it gets their faces on a television screen. In stark contrast, in the Age of Scholarship, humble researchers often were reluctant to claim expertise, even if they genuinely possessed it; they were more eager to defer expertise to others, even those with whom they disagreed. The wider information was spread, and the more it was discussed, they thought, the better for society.

Some say that the Age of Chivalry never existed and is, rather, a modern invention, a psychological comfort we use to distract ourselves from the brutality of current reality. Perhaps the same is true, sadly, of the Age of Scholarship in education research–that it is nothing more than a comfortable psychological distraction that helps the forlornly ethical and idealistic cope with the brutality of education research’s current reality.

The Brave New World of Intellectual Gangsters

In the Age of Scholarship, all education researchers operated independently, and all education researchers could speak, write, and were listened to. But, alas, the Age of Scholarship was long ago. Education research has since been taken over by gangs, otherwise known as think tanks or government-funded research centers. In other words, celebrity researchers.

For vivid examples of intellectual gangsterism, one need look no further than the issue that forms the cornerstone of current federal education policy – standardized testing.

Cronies, Cronies, Cronies

Two of the most prominent education research gangs are the Center for Research on Education Standards and Student Testing (CRESST), funded by the federal taxpayers now for two decades running, and a collection of about a dozen Republican Party-affiliated groups that are nominally separate, but operate more as clones from a single model. The Republican groups hire their analysts from the same sources (mostly former staffers of Chester “Checker” Finn, a former assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration, and former students or staffers of Harvard professor Paul Peterson) and from the same backgrounds–typically, pure academics or think tank analysts with little or no experience working in education.

CRESST has been equally hegemonist. CRESST researchers dominate all the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) committees on testing issues–even those on non-education-related testing. Thus, it should be to no one’s surprise that most NRC reports on testing issues focus on CRESST research (and, conversely, ignore the vast majority of research on testing issues). CRESST researchers apparently have become the spokespersons for research on testing issues at another organization entitled the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE).

The several hundred CRESST research reports to date, that U.S. taxpayers have funded, primarily cite the work of CRESST researchers. When citations to research at other organizations are made, typically those organizations are affiliated with CRESST (e.g., the Rand Corporation, the Learning Research and Development Center (LDRC) at U. Pittsburgh).

Boss Linn and Boss Finn

Investigate the past couple of decades worth of work published by the several “national” boards or commissions that have condemned the use of most educational testing, and one is sure to find the name of Robert Linn included among the members. Linn, the longtime co-director of CRESST, is, like his CRESST colleagues, rather generous in citing the research of his colleagues and rather liberal in declaring wide swaths of the education research literature (with results and conclusions at variance with his) nonexistent.

For example “Although much has been written on achievement motivation per se, there has been surprisingly little empirical research on the effects of different motivation conditions on test performance. Before examining the paucity of research on the relationship of motivation and test performance....”

A while ago, I spent some time computer searching and strolling library aisles for signs of the research literature on the relationship between motivation and test performance that Linn and his CRESST colleagues have repeatedly declared either nonexistent or close to it. Lo and behold, I discovered a few hundred studies. My search was tedious, but it was not difficult. Given the height of the pile of books, articles, and bibliographies I have yet to comb through, it would appear that I will soon discover a few hundred more.

What have the Republican think tanks had to say about CRESST’s claim that the research literature on the benefits of testing does not exist? Given the vital importance of the issue to current Republican education policy, one could reasonably have surmised that the Republican think tanks would have been eager to unleash the flood of studies condemned by the establishment, most of which lend support to their party’s policies.

Think again. The Republican think tankers, new to the research on educational testing as of several years ago, enthusiastically supported CRESST’s claims. Soon after seconding the CRESST’s claim that no, or almost no, research existed on the achievement (i.e., motivation) benefits of standardized testing, the Republican think tankers declared themselves to be pioneers in conducting such research.

I’ll cite you if you’ll cite me.

In the Age of Scholarship, education researchers felt obligated to both familiarize themselves with the research literature, and to summarize and cite it. Moreover, they felt obligated to cite the work of those with whom they may have disagreed or may have personally disliked.

In the new world of intellectual gangsters, citations to others’ and earlier work are not only not considered obligatory, they are carefully managed commodities, provided only when intended to curry favor and denied to those one dislikes, disagrees with, or considers too unimportant to be of concern. Citations are made either to fellow gang members or they are made to those outside the gang as a quid pro quo.

Harvard’s new motto: Celebritas!

To my shame and its disgrace, one of my alma maters, Harvard University, has established itself as the country’s foremost academic center for celebrity education research. Wide swaths of the education research literature and the work of thousands of scholars, most of whom are either dead or otherwise media-inconsequential, are declared nonexistent. Work done by Harvard-affiliated researchers, to the contrary, is labeled pioneering and characterized as “breaking new ground.”

Harvard bears the unique distinction of having both a faculty affiliation with CRESST and a direct tie to the Republican Party-affiliated think tanks. Harvard plays host to both “the establishment” and “the anti-establishment.”

Good for Harvard. Shame on Harvard.

I have been paying close attention to the activities, the self-serving claims, and the frequent boasts emanating from Harvard’s education policy centers, and, after several years of observation, have made up my mind. I invite the reader to look, in particular, at how often they cite each other’s work versus how seldom they cite anyone else’s, how often they claim originality in their work versus how seldom they acknowledge previous work, and the stunning alacrity with which they declare nonexistent research done outside the purview of the two intellectual gangs with which they are affiliated.

U.S. Education Journalists – Led around by the nose; It’s more convenient that way

A friend of mine once wrote a research report, one of thousands of reports that get published every year on public policy issues. For whatever reason, a reporter at the New York Times learned about it, gave him a call, and then wrote a front page article on it. In the following weeks, my friend received over two dozen inquires from other journalists throughout the country. He had been doing the same type of work for years and had not gotten a call from any journalist; suddenly, he was inundated. But, he was also stunned and sobered by the dependence of the press on the “pack journalism” method of finding a story. Were the only journalists in the country who did anything independent or original to be found only at a single newspaper, he wondered?

Education journalists have the power to bring back the Age of Scholarship in education research. They could do it simply by adhering to standard journalistic principles, such as: diversifying their sources; not blindly accepting assertions of fact from sources; and learning of and telling all sides of a story.

Unfortunately, some education journalists seem content to practice a caricature of their profession. Instead of taking the time and making the effort to find genuine experts on a topic, they call a think tank and ask for whatever person that tank has designated for that role. On occasion, perhaps, that person may actually be an expert on the topic, but usually not. Think tanks measure their performance (their “impact”) by the number of times their name is mentioned in the media. Consequently, a think tanker has no more incentive to suggest that an inquiring reporter talk to a genuine expert outside the think tank than an automobile salesperson has to suggest that a customer can get a better deal from a competitor.

Furthermore, instead of taking the time and making the effort to get all sides of a story, most education journalists call a think tank that, at least nominally, can be characterized as fitting somewhere else along the mythical, unidimensional liberal-conservative spectrum. If a reporter’s story emanates from the “establishment,” a telephone call may then go out to the “anti-establishment” and, typically, that means the office of Chester “Checker” Finn, Jr. (who has, since his days in the Reagan administration, established himself as the equivalent of an information control minister on education issues for the Republicans), or his designated successor, Frederick M. Hess. Rarely, if ever, is the reporter then referred to one of those most knowledgeable on the topic in question or to the best possible spokesperson for the “other side” of the issue. The reporter is referred to close colleagues of Finn and Hess. Reporter calls to CRESST are routed similarly within a tight circle of friends.

Paraphrasing A Nation at Risk (1983), if an authoritarian government had attempted to impose on U.S. education journalists the level of censorship that they have voluntarily imposed upon themselves, it would have been viewed it as a betrayal of our democracy and an unconstitutional act.

I wanted to understand why journalists would censor themselves, essentially, by confining their sources to the same small groups of intellectual gangsters. So, I asked some journalists. The most frequent explanation was convenience. Journalists cite those most familiar to them and easiest to reach.

For each individual journalist there would seem to be little wrong with this. After all, the end result is genuinely a story about education research with two sides of the story represented. No one seems to take responsibility, however, for what journalists do as a group. There is an organization called the Education Writers’ Association (EWA). Visit their Web site, though, and one sees that they lead their reporters down the same well-trodden paths toward the intellectual gangsters. The EWA is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Too many journalists accept it on faith that the most familiar sources and information must coincidently provide full coverage of education issues and points of view or, at least, representative samples of them. It’s more convenient to think that way.


What to do?

The dissolution of education knowledge represents a dangerous threat to our society and its future. Government and foundation research funders, in particular, could do much toward solving the problem. I would hazard a guess that most intellectual gangsters are not completely forthcoming on their research grant applications. That is, I doubt that they reveal that they are working diligently to replace a large body of very good education research with a small amount of their research. Nor, do I suspect, that they offer on their grant applications that the more money the government or foundations give them, the less the public will know.

Those truly interested in open discourse should stop funding censorship; those truly interested in the expansion of knowledge should stop funding its dissolution. If government and foundation research funders were interested in addressing the problem, I would suggest the following, just for starters:

  • Public agencies, private foundations, and other institutions that sponsor research should stipulate to those they sponsor that:
    • no funding will be provided for new research projects to those who have not made a sufficient effort to document the existing research literature
    • full representation of the research literature must be provided in literature reviews–censorship and cronyism should not be permitted
    • if absence- or paucity-of-research claims are made, research grant applicants should provide a list of where they have looked, and if they haven’t looked, their application should be denied
    • when it is discovered that grant applicants have misrepresented the research literature or exaggerated the originality of their own work, their funding should be withdrawn and they should be barred from applying for more
  • Moreover, funders should thoroughly investigate all absence- or paucity-of-research claims made by grant applicants. If they do not have the resources to investigate, they should stop funding research until they do.
  • U.S. Education Department funding of research should be stopped–it currently is responsible for eradicating and suppressing far more education information than it provides.
  • U.S. Education Department funding for data collection should be greatly increased, along with efforts to disseminate the data to a wider pool of independent researchers.

What would I predict are the prospects for these proposed reforms? Slim to none. Those who see the problem, care about it, and wish to fix it, are few and powerless. Those with the power to fix it, seem to like their power just fine.

More likely, the American public will continue to be misled about U.S. education by a small group of celebrity researchers--the intellectual gangsters--and U.S. education will continue its slow, steady decline.


Further reading:

Boorstin, D. (1961). The image. Vintage.
Chayevsky, P. (1976). Network [screenplay]. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer & United Artists.
Gordon, L. (2005). Historians in trouble: Plagiarism, fraud, and politics in the ivory tower. book review. Dissent. Summer.
Herring, M.Y. (2001). Ten reasons why the Internet is no substitute for a library. American Libraries. April.
Phelps, R.P., Ed. (2005). Defending standardized testing. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, N.J.
Phelps, R.P. (2003). Kill the messenger: The war on standardized testing. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J.
Phelps, R.P. (2000). High stakes: Testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation. book review. Educational and Psychological Measurement. 60(6), December.
Posner, R. (2001). Public intellectuals. Harvard University Press.
Stevens-Rayburn, S. (1998). If it’s not on the Web, it doesn’t exist at all: Electronic information resources – myth and reality. Library and Information Services in Astronomy III, ASP Conference Series V, 153.

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