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What Impact (Or Benefit) From Surge Of Education Think Tanks?

You don't really have to have read this NYT article (Research Groups Boom in Washington) to know that think tanks and "research" organizations have proliferated over the past few years:  Just think about the Center On Education Policy.  The Alliance.  Achieve.  The New America Foundation.  The Ed Sector.  The Center On American Progress.  Meanwhile the old warhorses -- Brookings, AEI, have gotten bigger and bigger.   

1982ea743aef8980abd65bf45c0efd2bb14The money keeps pouring in. It's a cheap way to go for funders, notes the article -- reports and panels compared to direct services -- and an easy source of policy ideas for lawmakers and candidates.  [It's also, I would add, a welcome haven for wonks detoxing from government service and academics who didn't get that tenure track position they thought they were going to get.]

But what about influence, not to speak of value? The article claims that it was AEI that "invented" the surge in Iraq as an example of think tanks' impact. But nothing that I can recall has happened like that on the education front perhaps since the Ed Trust practically wrote the achievement gap language NCLB in 2000. 

Maybe I'm forgetting something good, or am too self-loathing to see the value, but I can't think of many new or original ideas coming out of the education shops (many of which I've done research or writing for), much less real-world impact.  New America sometimes comes up with timely ideas and good notions for where to get money to pay for things.  [National testing wasn't one of them.] You could argue that Achieve has been at least a very good incubator for higher state standards and common assessments. CEP has become one of the primary sources of information on NCLB implementation.    The Ed Sector has put out one or two very helpful reports on the testing industry.  The Trust on the achievement gap. Fordham on state standards and WSF.

Rather than being about the hard work of making change, however, I feel like some of the education tanks and shops serve as platforms for ideas and resume-building.  I mean, Fordham and the Ed Sector and AEI, some of the most prominent, don't push legislation or do real legislative work to get things done.  They never support legislation, so they never win -- or lose (though they're quick to take credit).  It seems they measure their impact by media hits and publications more than anything else. 

Mo0st of all, think tanks like these are much more intellectual and ideological than they are political, in the sense of building coalitions and relationships to get real things done.   In that vacuum, the really big ideas (and big influences) are coming from other places -- Matthew Miller proposes getting rid of local school boards in a recent issue of The Atlantic, for example.  Jonathan Kozol fasts and pesters Ted Kennedy to break NCLB's back.  Steve Barr in LA creates a charter school model that includes a union contract. The President proposes Pell Grants for kids.

What do you think?  Am I totally wrong (as usual)?  Got any favorite think tanks, or think tank contributions to share?  I'd be happy to hear them, and am sure that others would as well. 

Previous Posts:
Think Tank Hires Republican Education Staffer With Cool Glasses
Needed: Better NCLB Politics -- Not More Policy
 All Of Bush's Worst Ideas (Except Perhaps NCLB) Came From AEI


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Isn't that their place in the universe? "Think tanks" think. Activists act.

Interesting post, Mr. Russo, but I'm not sure I buy your premise. You say that you can't think of many new or original ideas from think tanks, then proceed to list half a dozen. Mere platforms for ideas? I thought that was the point, actually. The real test is not who births an idea, but the ability to maintain focus and shepherd it through. Policy shops are enormously helpful in that regard. Change may start with a soloist, but it takes a chorus to make it stick. The only problem is if you're concerned about who gets the credit.

I've long joked that until there's a Nobel Prize for Publicity, it didn't matter who gets the credit for an idea. Of course, that was before Al Gore actually won one.

Hilarious Robert! The problem is that when think tanks get into advocacy for their research they become biased in the eyes of the community/media. Once you advocate for something you lose objectivity -- even if it is backed up by research, because as we all know in education, one study can say one thing while another can say the opposite.

So once an organization, like the Ed trust advocates for something, they arent exactly objective. Just a thought...

good points, all --

i'm arguing not for less thinking by think tanks, but for more thinking about adoption and implementation and less about the pure ideas themselves, which usually don't have much chance of seeing action.

i'm not really arguing for more advocacy, but for more efficacy -- more effectiveness when it comes to getting ideas considered and implemented. like you say, shepherded through.

as for bias, i don't think that anyone really thinks that think tank research is balanced or unbiased. the ed trust is pro charter. the center on ed policy is generally critical of NCLB. unbiased research, like journalistic objectivity, seems all but impossible. if that's the case, why not get something done?

i think that the items i mentioned were meant to illustrate the scarcity, marginality,, and irregularity of think tank contributions. they're the exception, not the rule.

Then i agree wholeheartedly with you. I dont have your experience within this sector (have only spent 3.5 years), but i am already disillioned at the amount of paper that gets produced relative to any substantive positive change. In my opinion there are too many groups at the table, and this extends way past just think tanks/research organizations. All the membership advocacy group have their hand in this as well. Is this a similar indictment to why our government has seemed to lose its course lately (not blaming republicans or Bush), but there is just so many promises made tos pecial intertests that nothing moves forward without umpteen amounts of tagalongs.

It just seems there are so many pockets and facets to this all important issue (back to education) that there will alway be differing points of view. Where can consensuous be built -- some people hate tests...some people think testing is the only way to hold schools accountable (and truly educate all children). Is there even a middle ground?

I'm a newcomer in this so maybe my impressions are still pretty fresh.

I still think that the policies that emerged with NCLB are mostly just warmed over ideas that already failed (in our state they were called Objectives Based Instruction or Extended Opporutnities for Success, but I imagine that there are different names all over the country ). The big difference is that with NCLB we paid much, much more for the same failed approaches. Had we remembered some institutional history, we would have known that NCLB wasn't ready for prime time. (Also the College Board claimed for generations that you couldn't study for their tests and then they abruptly changed and profitted from our gullibility. Oh I forgot, they changed from NRTs to CRTs, which in the real world means that they changed what other than the price tag?)

But we are all capable of downloading research and analyzing it. The rhetoric coming out of the Eduwonk and the Quick and the Ed can be pretty inflammatory. But their research is rock solid, and more importantly it shows good sense.

I haven't mentioned the Ed Trust for weeks because they bring out the worse in me. I don't know if they actually believe their own research or if they are just silently backing off from it. I hope they realize that they have been peddling Voodoo research. Is there anyone out in the blogosphere who would not fail a student who tried to pass off work like theirs as research? Not having a war chest to back me, if I had published something like Its Being Done, I would be laughed out of the community. But of course, they were primarily doing politics.

Where I often disagree with the bloggers is in journalism. In my experience, journalists who actually go into schools are a great asset. They immediately recognize the absurdities in so much of education. Which brings me to my suggestion. Have every think tank send, on a rotating basis, its researchers into inner city schools and have them teach for a year. Then they can be informed consumers of research.

The "research" coming out of various pro-school-choice groups and the academics in their pay gets a lot of attention. That's somewhat unfortunate because their research tends to be garbage. But nonetheless influential. There's some neuroscience work out there that suggests that rationality comes second, after the decision has already been made on more emotional grounds. Just repeat "Market good, monopoly bad" and then cater your research to fit that conclusion.

Slo Mo,

Couldn't agree with you more. A big plus for them, most journalists are too lazy to do any fact checking or examine the "research" and parrot the conclusions as facts.

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