Just days ago, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado announced the winners of its annual Bunkum Awards.
These are awards given to the worst educational research of the previous year. Being mundane or trivial is not enough to win these awards. They go only to “prime exemplars of incompetent science.”
The Grand Prize for Bunkum, or “Cancer is Under-rated” award,” went to the Progressive Policy Institute, for its report “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” It achieved distinction for its “weak analysis, agenda-driven recommendations, and the most bizarre analogy we have seen in a long time.” The report compared the growth of charter schools to the growth of cancer and viruses. The citation read: “Beyond the analogy, the report suffers from an almost complete lack of acceptable scientific evidence or original research supporting the policy suggestions. It presents nine “lessons” or suggestions that are essentially common and vague aphorisms from the business world. Yet it fails to make the case that the suggestions or references are relevant to school improvement.“
The First Runner-Up –the “Mirror Image (What You Read Is Reversed) “Award was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It won for its Measures of Teaching analysis, which reached a conclusion that was the exact opposite of what the evidence suggested.
The “If Bernie Madoff Worked in School Finance” Award went to the advocacy group ConnCAN for proposing a financial reform package that would be a reverse Robin Hood: Steal from the poor and give to the rich.
The “If Political Propaganda Counted as Research” award went to the Center for American Progress for its report “Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around the Nation’s Dropout Factories.” This report is a sham. Its “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 “Discovering the Obvious While Obscuring the Important” award went to the Third Way for its report on middle class schools. The report determined that middle class schools do better than schools at the bottom, but not as well as schools in affluent districts. What is the point of the study? “What, then, is basis of the conversation Third Way is attempting to ignite? We’re not sure. That’s because in a normal conversation, one can understand what the other person is saying. Yet this report mixes and matches data sources and units of analysis to such an extent that it’s almost impossible for readers to figure out which analyses go with which data. Even more troubling, since the report defines “middle class” as having between 25% and 75% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, its analyses of district-level data include the urban schools districts in Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston and Memphis. The Third Way appears to have found a new way to address urban poverty: define it out of existence.“
The NEPC “Get a Life(time) Achievement Award” went to Matthew Ladner, advisor to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Education Excellence. As the award says, “Dr. Ladner’s body of Bunk-work is focused on his shameless hawking of what he and the Governor call the “Florida Formula” for educational success. As our reviews have explained, they’d be less deceptive if they were selling prime Florida swampland. One cannot, however, deny Dr. Ladner’s salesmanship: gullible lawmakers throughout the nation have been pulling out their wallets and buying into his evidence-less pitch for flunking of low-scoring third graders and other policies likely to harm many more students than they help.”
To learn what put Ladner did to put him over the top in the estimation of the contests’ judges, read the full report.