What I learned at the ResearchED (US) Media Panel

For those still unfamiliar with it, ResearchED is “a grass-roots, teacher led organisation” founded in the UK whose mission is to “raise research literacy, bring people together, promote collaboration, increase awareness, promote research, and explore what works.” It has also been stereotyped as criticizing progressive education pedagogies in favor of traditional pedagogies. To my observation, it accepts the best ideas from both camps that are based on solid evidence.

ResearchED is popular and well established in the UK. Groups have also organized in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the US. US ResearchED held its second annual conference in New York City in October 2017. I was invited to lead one session and to participate in a panel on media coverage of education research.

In addition to myself—a frequent critic of US education journalism—the panel comprised a journalist, the head of an organization of journalists, and a moderator.

The main points I expressed:

There are two education establishments: the traditional public school coalition of education schools, unions, and administrator associations, and an education reform establishment, which relies on an extraordinarily small group of researchers, mostly academic economists and political scientists, to provide and interpret education research for them.

Both establishments aggressively suppress other education research, information, and points of view through selective referencing, dismissive reviews, citation cartels, tone policing, condescension, and character assassination.

Unfortunately, most nationally focused education journalists source their research stories from these two censorial groups and ignore the vast majority of available research and information. Moreover, journalists aid the information suppression whenever they print claims that a study they are covering is the first ever done on a topic (i.e., a firstness claim) or there exists no other research on the topic (i.e., a dismissive review). During the panel session, I accused education journalists of covering only those sources with money (and PR staff) behind them.

In their defense, the journalists’ association head asserted that they:

take money from a wide variety of sources, and

are open to receiving story tips from anyone.

The sourcing behavior she described seems to me remarkably passive. Note their donors all have money to give, and the amounts given range widely in size. What about those who cannot afford to “pay to play?”

As for their openness to story suggestions, of course some people and organizations know about pitching stories and many more do not. Some organizations with public relations staff are expert at this activity and make suggestions effectively and often. Moreover, aggressive career-focused researchers are more likely to feel such behavior—promoting their research with the media—is appropriate. By contrast, many, perhaps most, scholars feel that research discussions belong more properly in scholarly journals, and journalists should not be arbitrarily picking single studies from the research literature and suggesting policy conclusions based on them.

It worries me most that journalists might seem content to let story tipsters and large donors set their agenda. I would think that a truly independent press would set its own agenda.

My most memorable panel interactions, though, were with the moderator. He interjected a judgmental comment while I was speaking; cut me off twice; and planted a colleague in the audience who was certain to disagree with me (and subsequently did so).

The plant’s career has been made with money from the Gates Foundation and other Common Core funders. I have openly and thoroughly criticized the quality of his research work here and here.

As for the moderator, he heads an organization that, you guessed it, also takes money from prominent Common Core funders, including the Gates Foundation.

The moderator posed one question uniquely to me. He said some researchers he knows feel no need to read most education research because it is “crap.” I countered that much of their research is “crap,” too. But, I could have added a few more pertinent points:

  1. The “citation cartel” researchers I generally criticize for selective referencing and dismissive reviewing read very little past research, if one can judge by their citations. Generally, they read that done by others in their mutual back-scratching group and only a small amount done outside their group (typically that which rises above what I call the “celebrity research threshold,” that which is so well-known that it cannot be ignored). Moreover, they read little research conducted prior to the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web was introduced.
  2. The researchers I criticize dismiss any research using qualitative methods (except on those occasions when they themselves employ such methods), such as: surveys, interviews, case studies, observations, and ethnographies. Those methods are not “rigorous,” they claim. By this logic, researchers using “not rigorous” methods include Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Dian Fossey, Franz Boas, Alexander von Humboldt, Edward Jenner, and Thomas Kuhn (and any other historian).
  3. Those I most criticize for selective referencing and dismissive reviewing ignore almost completely a century’s worth of research conducted by psychologists, in favor of that published in economics, political science, and education. So, to say that all the research they ignore is “crap,” is to identify a hundred years of psychologists’ research as crap. (Note that much of the motivation for ResearchED is to showcase the best education-related research conducted in psychology that has been routinely ignored by education school professors.)
  4. Judgments of what is or not “crap” seem to be made based entirely on methodology. In the education reform establishment, we have a set of researchers trained in data analysis, but with very little exposure to actual education activity. Some of them may have taught school for a year or two when they were young, but that’s it—no experience in education administration at any level. Lacking experience in the field, it would seem even more important that they read widely in the research literature. But, they don’t.

The hearty thanks I received from several separate, individual audience members afterwards suggested to me that I was not alone in feeling that press coverage of education research is rigged in favor of those with money and power.

This entry was posted in Censorship, Curriculum & Instruction, Education journalism, Education policy, Education Writers Association, information suppression, K-12, research ethics, Richard P. Phelps. Bookmark the permalink.

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