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Holding Think Tanks Accountable

There is a ton of posting and commentary flying around about whether think tank folks are overly chummy with each other -- see reader responses at Eduwonkette and edbizzbuzz

Poohsleepy011808There are a lot of smart people working on education policy these days, and they can hang out together and serve on each other's boards all they want, far as I'm concerned. But from what I have seen in recent years especially, not enough of them are holding themselves or each other accountable for the quality and impact of their work.   (Ironically, while talking about accountability and competition.)

Folks who think they're part of a club don't compete with one another, tend to defend each other against outside criticism, refrain from scrutinizing each other's ideas, and neglect focusing squarely on the quality of their ideas and their success at getting them adopted and implemented. [This has long been one of my issues with Andy Rotherham, who consistently refuses to take on other think tank folks -- even Republican ones.]

If think tank work isn't really generating transformative ideas or real-world policies and program adoption, then I think eventually funders will  find something else to do with their money.  One idea that Dean elaborated on recently would be to reconceive think tanks as marketers -- no need to generate research -- leave the advocacy to folks who do advocacy, and use consulting firms like BCG or Alvarez to get things done on the ground. What do you think?


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I'm afraid that aside from the funders' deciding to do something else with their money, Alexander has described what is happening.

Part of the problem is either that a handful of funders have decided that joining, investing in and nurturing a club is a good reform strategy, or that their boards of directors have never had the network mapped out for discussion and overt endorsement.

Either way, one answer to this problem is for some philanthropy to get engaged in a broadening of representation for the pro-market perspective. So far the mainstream, old-line philanthropies have shied away from this. With Tony Bryk at Carnegie, maybe this could change.

Rather than feeding edsector, New Schools, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Charter School Leadership Council, New Leaders for New Schools, maybe Carnegie could be deliberate about funding some less elitist means of exploring the role of market concepts in public school reform, engage more "Kelseys", and encourage a national charter school association that represents the independent schools rather than the funders.

The answer to even a monopoly local to Washington DC is competition.

People in this network "refrain from scrutinizing each other's ideas"??? What world are you living in? Sure, we appear at each others' conferences, but we also have lots of vocal disagreements. Whether or not to include Algebra 2 in graduation requirements is a huge area of contention. Another is the degree to which CTE should be emphasized as a valid pathway out of high school. Try going over to Ed Trust to talk about CTE and see if you get groupthink.

I find it interesting that in three days of back and forth on this, no one is mentioning the 800 lb. gorilla that's really the source of a lot of these problems. It's not a handful of funders. It's A FUNDER, based in Seattle.

Doctor D, we're getting there on the funders. For example, see here:


Alexander, I'm glad you mentioned the consulting firms - not because I think they're adding value, but because I'd like to know what they're doing and for whom, and where their ideas come from. Many seem like poor translations of management theory into the educational arena. For example, check out the "intellectual capital" produced by Parthenon, Gates consulting firm of choice, with catchy titles like, "Capturing the Full Potential of K12 Consumer Education Spending in the US:"


Any insight on the consulting firms? Prior posts on this issue?

That is in odd take on Rotherham, to say the least. Consistently refuses to take on other think tank folks? I work at a right of center think tank, and Rotherham has taken on my research more than once. Off the top of my head, he debated me furiously on the desirability of special needs vouchers, and disagreed with a study I wrote for the Heritage Foundation on greater state flexibility under NCLB.

tell us more about the differences and disagreements, dr. d (or anyone else)-- because most of the time we don't really seem them. (or, perhaps, the folks we hear about most are doing the least arguing?)

-- who's arguing which sides on the algebra 2 issue, and where is that argument taking place?

-- if the trust opposes CTE, who is pushing it and where are things headed?

-- what other vigorous debates are going on inside the reform world?

what about two years ago or so when AEI published that EdNext articel damnign CEP's research?

I dont think it is as cut and dry as you do. It shouldnt be a negative that people can get along together while disagreeing on issues.

Also typically these people speak on the same panels because no one wants to see three people agreeing about everything, so you pick someone you know will have one view and someone who will have a differing one.

Also what abotu Chris Swanson, Jay Greene and the debates with EPI about graduation rates (Joy Deep Roy and Mishel).

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