Why I Don't Trust Education Research

Research is hailed as the Holy Grail in the world of education. Starting a sentence with the words "research shows" is aimed at sticking a dagger in the heart of an opponent's argument. Increasingly, though, I am finding reasons not to trust education research.

Over time I have noticed that many researchers on the left and right invariably produce studies that support their ideological beliefs. This causes me concern.

Yesterday's release of a study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado on the Los Angeles Times' 2010 analysis of value-added ratings of L.A. teachers provides the latest example of why I'm cynical about research. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the study Due Diligence and the Evaluation of Teachers. Others have pointed out flaws in the newspaper's methodology, though the Times continues to defend its work.

What bothers me is this: NEPC is undoubtedly a think tank with a progressive, left-of-center bent. Looking through a list of the center's studies, I'm hard-pressed to find one that does not reinforce the beliefs of people with that ideological inclination. Since December, I've received email alerts about NEPC studies casting doubt on charter schools quality, teacher evaluation methodologies, school report cards and international comparisons of U.S. student performance.

So when I hear NEPC has a new study, I know generally what its conclusions will be before I read it.

I know, like and respect Kevin Welner, the professor who heads NEPC. He used to write for this blog. I do not doubt his integrity. That's why I am puzzled by this phenomenon, which is by no means limited to NEPC.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, I know Harvard's Paul E. Petersen will produce research favoring vouchers and charter schools. Ditto Jay P. Greene from the University of Arkansas.

What's wrong with this picture? I want to see one of these researchers or their think tanks produce a study that cuts against the grain; that calls into question the beliefs of the researchers and their funders. Until that happens, I will take everything they write with an enormous grain of salt.

I may disagree with some of researcher Diane Ravitch's conversion experience conclusions, but I credit her with having the enormous courage to rethink her positions and then go very, very public with her mea culpa and her change of heart.