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Bunkum Awards Winners Brookings and StudentsFirst Reprise Their Shoddy Research

Statement from the Directors of the National Education Policy Center


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,

URL for this press release:

BOULDER, CO (January 23, 2014) — StudentsFirst and the Brown Center at the Brookings Institution, whose troubling research made both organizations winners of the 2013 “Look Mom! I Gave Myself An ‘A’ On My Report Card!” Bunkum Award, are at it again.

StudentsFirst won its Bunkum for the State Policy Report Card. NEPC expert reviewers noted, “…when the data collected for rating purposes has a narrow scope and is merely shorthand for an advocacy position, it has little or no usefulness as an examination of existing policy or as guidance for future policy.” 

Bunkum Award judges were less gentle, concluding that Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst had come 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 exposé, 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.

Apparently untainted by any concern for social science conventions or research quality, StudentsFirst released its 2014 State Policy Report Card on January 14th, and it is little more than a shopworn recapitulation of its 2013 clunker. It claims to rate states based on whether their “education policy environments … are student-centered and able to support reform.” But StudentsFirst simply does not support these assertions.

Similarly, Brookings won its “Look Mom! I Gave Myself an ‘A’ on My Report Card!” Bunkum Award for the Education Choice and Competition Index. Developed by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst with Sarah Whitfield, the Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI) is composed of 13 criteria used to determine how much a school district supports and encourages parental school choice. The index criteria favor choice as an end in and of itself, making the A-F grades nothing more than a reified statement of ideological preference.

As the 2013 Bunkum Awards judges noted in announcing their decision, the Brown Center

is well on its way to trashing [Brookings’ reputation] . . . with an onslaught of publications such as their breathtakingly fatuous choice and competition rating scale that can best be described as political drivel. . . . [The] indicators are devoid of any empirical foundation suggesting these attributes might produce better education.

The 2014 version of its Education Choice and Competition Index, released on January 8th, again offers a ranking and A-F grades. As opposed to StudentsFirst, this Brookings report is more clearly presented as based on ideological consistency, with a given set of choice-focused principles rather than rhetoric such as “student-centered” or “reform supporting” environments.

But if our friends at the Brown Center really want to simply help people understand where school districts fall on in the various choice-related categories, we would encourage them to drop the disapproving (or laudatory) approach of assigning A-F grades.

Or, alternatively, if they want to make the claim that the choice-heavy A-rated districts are deserving of praise, why not provide empirical support for the conclusion that these choice and competition policies are beneficial?

Find the Bunkum Awards for 2013 at:

Find the new Brookings report at:

Find the new StudentsFirst report at:

The annual “Bunkum” Awards for shoddy educational research are an outgrowth of theThink Twice think tank review project ( of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), which provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit