Politics and Research

It took years for researchers to complete a federally funded study on the effectiveness of abstinence-only education programs. Yet, after the study found no evidence that such programs work, it took only days after its release for pro-abstinence advocacy groups to launch a public relations counterattack -- dismissing the findings and attacking the study’s methodology.

“The findings about abstinence programs are based on a flawed design,” noted a press release by Concerned Women for America. “This basic flaw in the study design invalidates any findings in the report.” Meanwhile, the Family Research Council argued that “for every study that disparages the abstinence approach, there are many others that point to its success.”

So what are people to believe? That’s the question educators and policymakers are asking these days -- and not just about abstinence education. Cite research today that concludes vouchers have no effect on student achievement, and voucher proponents will point to studies that say just the opposite. Look for research on alternative certification programs, and there’ll be studies supporting their efficacy -- and damning their failings.

It’s enough to make some policymakers throw up their hands and say, “Forget it. The research can’t tell me anything.”

Yet, while understandable, such pessimism is mistaken. The reality, says America’s research community, is that some very good research is available to guide school boards and state and federal lawmakers in making policy decisions on public education.

“There’s some wonderful research floating around,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “There’s also a lot of tripe. It comes in all forms. You just have to be a better consumer of what’s out there.”

That can take some work, as these are interesting times for the field of education research. The quality is, in general, improving. At the same time, however, the power of the Internet and the marketing tactics of policy think tanks and advocacy groups have resulted in a deluge of new studies and reports. The credibility of research, meanwhile, is suffering from the release of sloppy and biased work by ideologically driven groups and some virulent attacks that challenge vested interests.

In the research world, things are a lot more exciting -- and disturbing -- than just a decade ago. Perhaps this explains why some researchers suggest, only half in jest, that their field feels a bit like “the Wild West.”

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