There are Only Two Sides to US Education Policy (Thanks to the Parties)

Created: 03 April, 2018
Updated: 21 November, 2022
4 min read

Not only is Jeb Bush the son of one former US president and the brother of another, as Florida governor he established a reputation as a hands-on activist and innovator, particularly in education policy. Indeed, he helped to establish and lead the education policy and advocacy group, Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd).

I just happened to be attending another meeting in the same hotel when ExcelinEd met for one of its annual conferences, and perused their conference program literature and website. I noticed that the organization asserted unambiguous support for using standardized tests in education. But, to buttress the argument, it cited just a single piece of research, and not a very good one.

Afterwards, I checked the websites of other GOP-affiliated, education policy-focused organizations and saw much the same. Standardized testing was good, they thought, but at most just a few supportive research studies existed, all conducted just in the previous few years and all by individuals within the Republican leadership’s small retainer of education policy wonks.

Republican policymakers and sympathetic local, state, and national advocacy organizations rely on a single, relatively tiny group of think tankers and academic economists and political scientists to tell them “what the research says.” Though “tiny” may exaggerate the group’s size.

Former students — and students of former students — of a single Harvard political science professor comprise a substantial proportion of the group. Others come from just a few other universities, think tanks, and research centers, one well-funded advocacy organization, and some close relatives of the aforementioned.

A well-known group venue is Education Next, where members publish, lavishly praise each other’s work, and, just as often, declare nonexistent or woefully inferior the vast majority of research work done by those outside their tight circle. Group founders also belong to the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

For two decades, Republican leaders have made policy for three hundred million US citizens (e.g., the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), Common Core Standards (2007), Every Student Succeeds Act (2015)), informed only by the thin slices of information and research provided by their in-house education policy coterie.

Meanwhile a cornucopia of often better and more appropriate research—summaries and meta-analyses of thousands of studies dating back a century (see, for example, here, here, and here) — was repeatedly declared nonexistent by their trusted policy advisors.

The few studies on which GOP leaders relied, however, were infinitely more than those on “the other side” would acknowledge. Over at the Democratic Party-leaning National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a co-founder declared, “Empirical evidence to support testing doesn't exist.”

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That is, the evidence he was willing to acknowledge did not include it. Many studies conducted over a century, across dozens of countries, and employing the full variety of research methods had found plenty of supportive evidence.

Mind you, the NEPC co-founder is no odd eccentric. He is a widely admired researcher and frequent recipient of prestigious awards.

One of his first organizational efforts, the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project, aimed to counter the abundant media coverage typically granted the GOP-aligned education policy researchers. Think Twice organizers recruit researchers – typically education school professors – on their side of the ideological divide to review – invariably critically – the GOP-aligned reports as they are released.

By all appearances, the NEPC, with its Think Twice and other projects, has grown into a substantial countervailing force to the Education Next–Koret Task Force Republican Party-aligned group, perhaps roughly equivalent in influence and media coverage, if not in funding.

So, it would seem that “both sides” are now allowed ample opportunity to present their evidence and express their points of view. To a small d democrat, that seems fair, doesn’t it? Essential policy issues are now debated in a bipartisan manner.

Unfortunately, the partisan advisors retain only the evidence and cite only the research they prefer. Both groups ignore and frequently declare nonexistent the overwhelming majority of policy-relevant evidence and research.

When US education journalists get “both sides of the story,” they may get only a smidgen of the whole. Coincident with this bipartisan information suppression is a US education system mired in mediocrity despite levels of public funding well above international averages.

The problem may not be so much that policy-makers ignore or misinterpret the education policy advice they receive but, rather, that what they receive is absurdly incomplete, highly skewed, and self-serving to the advisors in whom they have placed perhaps too much trust.

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Photo Credit: CLS Digital / shutterstock.com

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