Radical Eyes for Equity: When Think Tank Opinion on Policy is Driven by Advocacy, Refute Them: A Reader

Last night in my new upper-level writing course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, we waded into critical discourse analysis, followed by practicing those moves on a picture book, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type.

Next, we shifted to small groups so students could also practice analyzing media coverage of education—a key component of their assignments that require comparing media narratives about key education topics to the research base on that topic. I provided the small groups with an Op-Ed on teacher recruitment and retention from the local paper and 10 (More) Reasons Why the U.S. Education System Is Failing from Education Week.

One group noticed this EdWeek commentary cited The Brookings Institute, and as I and one of our texts (Bracey, 2006) have stressed, when analyzing media claims about educational research, we must all critically investigate anything coming from think tanks.

So I was primed for my Twitter feed this morning when I noticed Peter Greene’s Still Pushing the Common Core—a sharp and thorough unpacking of The Brookings Institutes’ misguided When public opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them:

Among the living dead that stumble through the graveyard of failed education ideas, we can still find our old friend, the Common Core State [sic] Standards. Like an undead Tinker Bell, as long as someone’s willing to clap for the damned thing, it will keep coming back.

This time the applause is coming from Brookings, an institution devoted to the notion that economists can be experts in anything. The actual research they’re highlighting was produced by a research grant from the USC Rossier School of Education, and written up by Stephen Aguilar, Morgan Polikoff, and Gale Sinatra, all of the Rossier School. Polikoff is a familiar name in the ed reform world, and he can sometimes be found conducting serious research. This is not one of those times.

Echoing Greene’s last point, I stressed last night that Brookings often produced solid reports, despite Greene’s caution (“economists can be experts in anything”); in fact, I routinely promote the work of Andre Perry, a Brookings Fellow.

After reading Greene’s analysis, I clicked on the Brookings report and immediately scanned the footnotes, noticing that the report includes none of the thorough reports and comprehensive research on two very important issues related to the Common Core debate: (1) the standards movement has shown over more than three decades of constantly creating and implementing new standards that there is almost no clear correlation between the quality or presence of standards and better student outcomes, and (2) careful analyses of Common Core have shown that these standards show no promise of overcoming that clear trend.

Instead of taking the necessary larger step back and away from the cult of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, as Greene explains:

The paper purports to be about correcting misperceptions and misunderstandings about public policy, but I think it’s better understood as a study of how to better sculpt PR to market your policy idea. And in this case they’re looking at how to better manage the PR for Common Core.

Yes, as someone who lives in the Tea-Party-turned-Trumplandia Upstate of South Carolina, I witnessed the yard signs protesting the Common Core, a heaping mess of anti-Obama misconceptions.

But what Brookings fails to acknowledge, trapped as they are in the “better standards” delusion, is that Common Core advocates were mostly just as misinformed as the ideologues attacking Common Core as a proxy for the Obama agenda.

Why not conduct some research on that? Maybe: When political opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them.

Or better yet: Bitter lessons from chasing better standards [1].

(Hint: Think tanks are mostly all-in on education reform for the sake of education reform and too often bereft of critical education scholars.)

And thus, here is another hint: In this Groundhog Day adventure in standards [2], there has been absolutely no absence of solid evidence-based and critical responses to the Common Core movement. The problem, repeated again by this Brookings report, is the “rigid refusal” to acknowledge the failure of the accountability/standards/high-stakes testing silo approach to education reform.

Along with suggesting you read Greene, then, let me offer a reader, one I am certain will once again be ignored since it makes a case the education reform crowd simply does not want to acknowledge:

Finally, there is a nugget in this Brookings misfire that deserves some attention:

Despite largely falling off the political radar (neither President Trump nor Secretary DeVos has talked much about Common Core in the last year except to say that it is dead),[3] the standards are still an important topic. More than 40 states are still implementing the standards or a very close variant thereof.[4] Billions are still being spent on curriculum materials and professional development.

As I noted in the AlterNet piece linked above, the pursuit of better (and ever-new) standards and better (and ever-new) high-stakes tests is mostly a financial boondoggle for the textbook and testing industries as well as a careless financial drain on educational funding (tax-payers’ money).

Framing any standards debate, then, as simply a PR problem is more than lazy; it is careless and ultimately yet another remedy that is part of the disease.

[1] Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests

[2] I am seeking a second-level metaphor since Greene aptly used the zombie comparison.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer,...