Book review: Spin Cycle

spin cycle

Spin Cycle: How research is used in policy debates. The case of charter schools.
Jeffrey R. Henig
Russell Sage Foundation and The Century Foundation. 2008.

If knowledge is power, we ain’t doing too well. Good social science research should, and could, be much more widely available and used to inform public policy making and to benefit the public good.

But far too much good research tends to sit on the shelf. And some of the research that is used ends up serving as ammunition in partisan battles over policies like school choice and voucher programs. In Spin Cycle, Jeffrey Henig makes the case that many agents share the blame for this problem: the culture gaps between researchers, editors, reporters, and policymakers; ideologically driven advocacy groups and funding agencies; and new electronic media that encourage rushing things into print.

Henig is professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and professor of political science at Columbia University.

He uses the school vouchers debate of the 1990s as a case study to dig into the causes that hobble the potential of sound research to inform public decision making.

Voucher programs and charter schools could have been treated like an interesting but uncontroversial reform in service delivery, Henig says. But instead, the debate “became aligned with much broader arguments about the proper role of government versus markets,” an argument that continues to drive “the deep-plate tectonics of partisan and ideological maneuvering.”

Journalists: Overworked and under-trained journalists often lack the time and expertise to master research methodologies. Even reporters who have the training and inclination to dig deep into research reports are limited by editorial priorities, space constraints, and assessments of how much complexity their audience is willing to tolerate. They also recognize that education is a field that is rife with advocacy and they can’t identify readily whether people are advocates.

Advocacy groups: Conservative foundations have used targeted resources 1. to support scholars whose writings challenge the notion that government can, or even tries to, promote the public well-being and 2. to buck up the notion that free markets and individualism provide not just liberty but prosperity and justice as well. Some of this conservative funding has gone into efforts to discredit universities as bastions housing the enemy.

Policymakers: Believing that the average citizen is ill-informed and gullible, politicians adopt simplistic and ploddingly repetitive positions with the assumption that if they do not do this, their competitors will. Research—objective evidence—is only part of the process that drives policy change. How issues are framed has much to do with how groups of citizens come to understand policies, formulate their positions on them, and decide whether to mobilize politically to support or oppose policy change. That leaves little room for research that admits to ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, and mixed public-private solutions.

Research organizations: Some of the journalists Henig interviewed wished for a “high-profile, high status, peer-reviewed journal,” such as the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association, that would steer them to studies most worthy of attention and best able to withstand critical scrutiny. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) sponsors five journals, Henig points out, yet “their quality is mixed and their focus varies.” They compete not only with one another but also several others. A peak journal on educational policy might have to be housed outside AERA, Henig suggests, “and offer both a high profile sponsoring body and an advisory board that included top economists, political scientists, sociologists, and the like.“

Culture gaps. Researchers and political actors think about evidence and action in different ways. Research is cumulative and takes years and decades. Political time is defined by election cycles, scheduled reauthorization debates, and the need to respond to short-term crises or sudden shifts in public attention. Policymakers want concrete cause-effect evidence, while researchers are trained to be cautious about making causal claims.

Electronic media: There’s a growing tendency of researchers to release studies quickly via Web sites and press releases, but journalists felt that this put them in a tougher position. It made it more difficult for them to separate the slick from the significant, and exposed them to risks if they write about a study that might be subsequently discredited.

Quoting one of his sources, Henig says it often boils down to this: “The person who is the best salesperson gets their story in the paper.”

Oh—back to charter the schools issue. Henig says that if charter schools have consequences—good or bad—they are incremental, less powerful than consequences flowing from other variables, and contingent on circumstance, policy design, administrative implementation, and local context. “Now that research on test scores shows that charter schools are neither panacea nor disaster,” he says, “there are incentives on both sides to adopt a friendly but more arm’s-length stance.”

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