The 'Look Mom! I Gave Myself an ‘A’ on My Report Card!' Award

Second Runner-up: To StudentsFirst for State Policy Report Card
First Runner-up: To American Legislative Exchange Council for port Card on American Education
Grand Prize Winner: To Brookings Institution for The Education Choice and Competition Index and for School Choice and School Performance in the New York City Public Schools

Back in the old days, when people thought they had a good idea, they would go through the trouble of carefully explaining the notion, pointing to evidence that it worked to accomplish desired goals, demonstrating that it was cost effective, and even applying the scientific method! But that was then, and this is now. And some of the coolest kids have apparently decided to take a bit of a shortcut: They simply announce that all their ideas are fantastic, and then decorate them in a way that suggests an evidence-based judgment. Witness the fact that we are now swimming in an ocean of report cards and grades whereby A’s are reserved for those who adopt the unproven ideas of the cool kids. Those who resist adopting these unproven ideas incur the wrath of the F-grade.

It’s apparently quite a fun little game. The challenge is to create a grading system that reflects the unsubstantiated policy biases of the rater while getting as many people as possible to believe that it’s legitimately based on social science.  The author of the rating scheme that dupes the most policy makers wins!

This year, there are triple-winners of the “Look Mom! I gave myself an ‘A’ on my report card!” award, including our Grand Prize Winner for 2013!

Second Runner-up goes to StudentsFirst, which came up with 24 measures based on the organization’s advocacy for school choice, test-based accountability and governance changes. Unfortunately, the think tank’s “State Policy Report Card” never quite gets around to justifying these measures with research evidence linking them to desired student outcomes.  Apparently, they are grounded in revealed truth unseen or unseeable to lesser mortals. Evidence, though, has never been a requirement for these report card grades. And naturally the award-winning states embrace the raters’ subjective values. In a delightful expose, our reviewers demonstrated that the 50 states received dramatically different grades from a variety of recent report cards: a given state often received a grade of “A” on one group’s list and an “F” on another group’s list.

First Runner-up goes to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which almost took the top honors as the most shameful of a bad lot. What makes the ALEC report card particularly laughable is the Emperor’s-clothes claim that its grades are “research-based.” Yes, evidence-based or research-based report card grades would be most welcome, but all ALEC offers is a compilation of cherry-picked contentions from other advocacy think tanks. Thus, what is put forth as scientifically based school choice research is actually selective quotations from school-choice advocacy organizations such as Fordham, Friedman and the Alliance for School Choice. Similarly, the report’s claims about the benefits of alternate teacher certification in attracting higher quality candidates are based on only one paper showing higher value-added scores. Unfortunately, that paper was unpublished—and the report’s reference section led to a dead link.

This year’s Grand Prize Winner is the Brookings Institution and its Brown Center on Education Policy. Brookings has worked hard over the years to build a reputation for sound policy work. But, at least in terms of its education work, it is well on its way to trashing that standing with an onslaught of publications such as their breathtakingly fatuous choice and competition rating scale that can best be described as political drivel. It is based on 13 indicators that favor a deregulated, scaled-up school choice system, and the indicators are devoid of any empirical foundation suggesting these attributes might produce better education.

Since the mere construction of this jaundiced and unsupported scale would leave us all feeling shortchanged, Brookings has also obliged its audience with an application of its index to provide an “evaluation” of New York City’s choice system. Where an informative literature review would conventionally be presented, the authors of this NYC report touchingly extoll the virtues of school choice. They then claim that “gains” in NYC were due to school choice while presenting absolutely nothing to support this causal claim. And, following from this claim and from their exquisite choice and competition rating scale, they offer the expected recommendations. They almost literally give themselves an “A.”

Seldom do we see such a confluence of self-assured hubris and unsupported assertions. It’s hard to find words that capture this spectacular display except to say, “Congratulations, Brookings! You just won the Bunkum’s Grand Prize for shoddiest educational research for 2013.”