A few weeks ago, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) issued a review of the research on virtual learning. Several proponents of online education issued responses that didn't offer much substance beyond pointing out NEPC’s funding sources. A similar reaction ensued after the release last year of the Gates Foundation's preliminary report on the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. There were plenty of substantive critiques, but many of the reactions amounted to knee-jerk dismissals of the report based on pre-existing attitudes toward the foundation's agenda.
More recently, we’ve even seen unbelievably puerile schemes in which political operatives actually pretend to represent legitimate organizations requesting consulting services. They record the phone calls, and post out-of-context snippets online to discredit the researchers.
Almost all of the people who partake in this behavior share at least one fundamental characteristic: They are unable to judge research for themselves, on its merits. They can’t tell the difference, so they default to attacking substantive work based on nothing more than the affiliations and/or viewpoints of the researchers.
The truth is that there’s plenty of questionable research flying around, and much of it does come from organizations and think tanks that have a clear point of view. But the quality of this work varies between (and within) organizations, not by which "side" they're on in the education debate. None of them is perfect, but several “pro-reform” organizations, such as Education Next and CALDER, regularly produce/sponsor good work in the field of education, as do organizations that are more skeptical of market-based reform, like the Economic Policy Institute and NEPC.
Needless to say, only a fool thinks that empirical research is completely detached from the premises and biases of the researchers, and even the best, most "objective" outfits slip up from time to time. It’s perfectly normal - indeed, necessary - to be skeptical. That’s a good, healthy approach.
But criticizing research based on where it comes from, not what it says, is the laziest, most unproductive form of discourse. It is the preferred tool of the ignorant – those who cannot discern quality for themselves have only one recourse, and that is to attack the messenger. When they do so, it cheapens the dialogue, and threatens the critical role of research in policymaking.
So, a piece of advice to those whose first step in assessing reports and papers is to check the author's credentials or the organization's funding: Take a research methods course or three, and come back to the table when you actually have something to offer.
- Matt Di Carlo