01/24/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Pundits, Researchers, and Reporters: Education Media and the Search for Expertise

On October 13, 2011, Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, published a list on his blog of "about two dozen Republican and/or conservative (and/or libertarian) edu-thinkers that enterprising reporters might tap for expertise when writing about GOP policy proposals or the GOP presidential field and education." Hess' primary impetus was what he called "the ed press' disconcerting habit of relying almost entirely on professional Democrats or Democratic-leaning academics to provide commentary on Republican education proposals when it comes to the presidential contest and federal policy." His list is composed of people who have "held public office, worked for or advised public officials, or play prominent roles at organizations where they champion policies regarded as 'conservative.'"

That list may in fact be of assistance to reporters and others looking for comments about education policy proposals from the conservative perspective. But it's important to note the obvious: his list of sources was focused on the ideology of the people on it, not their knowledge of the research evidence that may or may not underlie a particular proposal. Only a half-dozen of the names on his list of 34 "thinkers" make their living as researchers.

Shortly after the Hess list was published, I was contacted by someone in the education press and asked if I "could assemble a similar list of some not-so-conservative folks." But in truth I had no interest in doing so. Instead, I thought it might be helpful to compile a list of researchers who are comfortable speaking with media and policymakers.

To be blunt, and to risk offending some of my friends in the education press, I thought it would be useful to offer assistance in overcoming another "disconcerting habit" of the media coverage of education policy: the elevation of pundits over experts (and, for that matter, over practitioners).

To help address this, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) has just released Researchers as resources: A list of experts who can speak to the overall knowledge base on important education issues. The 64 researchers on the list are identified by their areas of research expertise. They can all speak to the overall knowledge base - to the weight of scholarly thought and research evidence in a given K-12 education policy area. Our list is weighted toward those we've worked with in the past at the NEPC. It is certainly not comprehensive, neither in terms of topics nor in terms of experts (although we do offer more names in connection with topics that are currently of great policy interest). We at the NEPC, as well as organizations such as the National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association, could point interested members of the media to many other researchers who could serve as experts. Individual universities and reputable research organizations such as the RAND Corporation could be called upon to do the same.

The distinction I've drawn here between Hess' list and the one NEPC is publishing is not meant as a criticism. Rick wrote the list, after all, in the context of reporting on the statements of political candidates. Our list is, in contrast, for reporters who are seeking information about the quality of the research evidence relevant to a given policy. This doesn't mean that researchers don't have what Rick often calls "priors" (the values and beliefs that everyone brings to meaningful issues). The experts on our list no doubt do have such "priors," but first and foremost they speak to evidence and have the social scientific knowledge necessary to interpret it. They can all point to high-quality research to explain and support their conclusions. I believe public discussions of policy will greatly benefit when that becomes standard practice.