Silly Season in Academe
No chance at spin left behind.


Chester E. Finn Jr.

Presidential election campaigns bring out the worst in academics whose partisan yearnings overcome their scholarly scruples.

The month has brought a spectacular specimen of this sorry genre from Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller, who, on October 7, loosed a “study” that armed the Kerry-Edwards campaign with misleading information about post-No Child Left Behind reading scores in key states. Hours later, Senator Kerry pulled the pin and hurled it: “Just yesterday, the President said, because of his education reform, reading scores are increasing in our public schools. Well, ladies and gentlemen, a new study released today says that is just plain not true. The facts are that [in] 11 out of our largest 15 states, reading scores are flat or have gone down.”

One can’t help but recall four years ago when, weeks before the election, a RAND analyst released a “study” purporting to show that achievement gains in Texas were not as rosy as then-Governor Bush claimed. (It was rebutted by, among others, another RAND analysis.)

The initial press release for Fuller’s study was issued on the letterhead of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a generally respectable outfit co-located on the campuses of Berkeley, Stanford, and U.C./Davis and underwritten by the Hewlett Foundation. Fuller is one of its three co-directors. Stanford’s eminent Michael W. Kirst is another. The “contact person” named in the release was PACE’s director of government relations. The core “finding” reported therein was that “no consistent pattern of gains in children’s reading skills can yet be detected since passage of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ reforms. In 11 of the 15 major states surveyed, youngsters’ reading scores were flat or have declined since the Bush reforms were enacted.”

It was transparently clear that this “study” was intended to undercut administration claims about post-NCLB education gains. A footnote quoted several statements by the president and Secretary Paige. And in case its political significance and timeliness weren’t obvious, another footnote reminded readers that education is the fourth most important issue on voters’ minds this fall.

Fuller, moreover, went on to publish a long opinion piece in the latest Education Week, titled “Are Test Scores Really Rising? School Reform and Campaign Rhetoric.” It is blatantly partisan, aimed at deflating Bush balloons and inflating Kerry charges that NCLB isn’t working and Bush doesn’t deserve credit as an education reformer. The EdWeek commentary is based on the PACE “study,” described by Fuller as a “new compilation by scholars from the Stanford-University of California research institute Policy Analysis for California Education.”

Any number of things about this are fishy, starting with the fact that PACE’s normal beat is California, not the nation. But the smelliest thing is that the study is wrong in its overall conclusion and wrong for most of the 15 states selected (by curious criteria) for review. As Hoover institution scholars Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond pointed out in a memo to colleagues actually improved their reading scores between 2001 (or, in California’s case, 2002) and 2004, and three others were flat. Only in Texas was there a decline, and that state dramatically toughened its tests during this period, making longitudinal comparisons dicey.

Education Secretary Rod Paige termed the study “deeply flawed…riddled with assumptions, rough approximations, and inaccuracies.” Going Hanushek and Raymond one better, he concluded that “the numbers PACE selected show that test scores are up in 14 of the 15 states they analyzed.”

A dozen educators (myself included) characterized Fuller’s work as “misleading at best and outrageous at worst.”

Fuller, however, appears undaunted. He writes that not only are current results nothing to crow about, but that “Washington’s long-term influence on children’s learning curves will diminish until the deeper constraints facing many schools are confronted: rising levels of child poverty, sinking teacher salaries, and unions that turn a blind eye….”

He got the union part right, but instead of drawing the obvious political conclusion–that a Kerry victory will strengthen and embolden those very unions–he goes on primarily to bash Bush and suggest that Kerry (though “half-hearted” in some respects and murky in others) would be better for education because he’ll spend more.

Professor Fuller is free to express his views about candidates and vote however he likes. He’s a former Democratic aide and as an oft-quoted critic of charter schools and veteran testing skeptic. It was, however, the PACE connection that lent credibility to Fuller’s rant and lifted it from a single leftist professor’s opinion toward the status of scholarship worthy of attention.

Yet in a singular development, PACE itself has disavowed the Fuller study. I’ve no idea what happened behind the scenes, but last weekend PACE began to backpedal. Stanford’s Kirst e-mailed a number of people, saying that it was not actually a PACE study, just Fuller’s work, and a clarification would be issued.

And indeed it was, last Monday. The three PACE co-directors, Fuller included, put out a three-paragraph statement saying the “compilation of state reading scores” was solely the work of “Fuller and his research team” and that a mysterious “administrative error” had led to its being attributed to PACE.

Presumably under pressure from his colleagues, Fuller made a stab at correcting the study’s attribution in Education Week. But by then it was too late to change the print edition and the on-line version, while not naming PACE in the author’s byline, contains in its text the PACE linkage quoted above.

In any case, by then Kerry had this anti-Bush weapon in hand and was using it. Only within the academy would PACE’s disavowal of Fuller’s work even be noticed.

Why did this happen? There’s little doubt that PACE’s leaders are Democrats (though Kirst is an honorable, astute, and scrupulous scholar who was apparently blindsided, then mortified, by the incident). There’s no doubt that PACE’s principal financial backer has its education program led by a prominent Democrat. There’s no doubt that Education Week, though customarily even-handed and well edited, draws much of its financial support from national foundations that would love to dance on the grave of George W. Bush. One doesn’t have to be paranoid to see how all this could have come together, not, I think, in a conspiratorial sense so much as in a complicit suspension of critical scrutiny, editorial skepticism and internal controls when a well-timed “study” looked as if it would be good for Kerry-Edwards and bad for Bush-Cheney. Add the sheer fame and visibility, warranted or no, that was bound to attend such a “study,” and it would be difficult for any academic, foundation or editor to resist. The possibility of celebrity, however fleeting (or unwarranted), is catnip to the scholarly temperament.

In the long run, however, this sort of thing deepens the doubts that just about everyone outside the ivy-covered walls harbors toward academics in general and education research in particular. It reduces the odds that those purporting to “speak truth to power” will be heard. And it does no good for children who deserve better than they’re getting from today’s schools and those who “study” them.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.