06/05/2012 11:08 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

When Ed 'Research' Makes You LOL

... the resulting policies won't be nearly as funny.

Bad education policy doesn't generally arise from good research. Instead, this task falls on a separate body of research -- often planned and executed by advocacy think tanks.

Last week, the National Education Policy Center "honored" the worst of these think tank reports as part of their annual "Bunkum Awards." (You can enjoy a short video of the awards presentation here.)

These awards are nod to the shoddiest education policy "research" of the year, as determined by the experts who review the think tank reports as part of the NEPC's Think Twice project. Launched in 2006, this project submits think tank reports to the same kind of rigorous peer review standards that a research document normally has to clear before publication.

In all, six Bunkums were handed out. Included among these "special cases that shone through as prime exemplars of incompetent science" were:

  • ConnCAN's Spend Smart: Fix Our Broken School Funding, taking home the "If Bernie Madoff Worked in School Funding" award, for its unsubstantiated arguments in support of a "reverse Robin Hood" approach to school funding;
  • The Center for American Progress' Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around the Nation's Dropout Factories, which earned the "If Political Propaganda Counted As Research" award. The award description included this tidbit:

    The report's citations to "research" literature about school turnarounds, for instance, consisted of four references: a blog, a consultant's template, a non-peer reviewed case study, and an article from the Hoover Institution journal Education Next. The report also focused on the ostensibly inspiring improvements of one school that, after concentrated, intensive and skillful charter management, catapulted English Language Arts proficiency rates to 14.9% and math proficiency rates all the way to 7%.

  • The Grand Prize winner, the Progressive Policy Institute's Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector's Best, which advocated exponential growth of their favorite charter schools. The PPI took home the "Cancer is Under-Rated" award both for the poor quality of analysis and the year's most "bizarre," "tone-deaf" analogy: likening the hoped-for growth of these favorite charter school to that of mold, viruses and cancer. The NEPC commented that a reasonable "take away from this comparison is that exponential growth in the natural world is not always desirable. It can, in fact, be quite deadly."

You can, and should, watch the video and read the rest of the awards here. The Bunkum Awards are a very funny take on a very serious problem: the preponderance of poorly supported advocacy documents dressed up as official policy research. Too often, these reports are printed, published and spread throughout the mass media and beyond, without critique. They are then used to promote a specific kind of "reform," as advocates -- intentionally or not -- mislead the public into believing that "research says" a given policy is a great idea, even when little to no credible evidence exists to support such a claim.

We can and should demand better from our policymakers, and educating ourselves about what research really says is an important part of that process. We owe it to students and to ourselves as tax-payers and public school stakeholders to make sure that our education policy is made on the basis of sound evidence, instead of joke-worthy reports.

Sabrina Stevens works with the NEPC around social media and outreach.