Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Happy PISA Day, everybody!

Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy of the Economic Policy Institute have some strong words about how PISA data is released.
It is usual practice for research organizations (and in some cases, the government) to provide advance copies of their reports to objective journalists. That way, journalists have an opportunity to review the data and can write about them in a more informed fashion. Sometimes, journalists are permitted to share this embargoed information with diverse experts who can help the journalists understand possibly alternative interpretations.

In this case, however, the OECD and ED have instead given their PISA report to selected advocacy groups that can be counted on, for the most part, to echo official interpretations and participate as a chorus in the official release.* These are groups whose interpretation of the data has typically been aligned with that of the OECD and ED—that American schools are in decline and that international test scores portend an economic disaster for the United States, unless the school reform programs favored by the administration are followed.

The Department’s co-optation of these organizations in its official release is not an attempt to inform but rather to manipulate public opinion. Those with different interpretations of international test scores will see the reports only after the headlines have become history.

Such manipulation in the release of official government data would never be tolerated in fields where official data are taken seriously. Can you imagine the Census Bureau providing its poverty data in advance only to advocacy groups that supported the administration, and then releasing its report to the public at an event at which these advocacy groups were given slots on a program to praise the administration’s anti-poverty efforts? What if the Bureau of Labor Statistics gave its monthly unemployment report in advance to Democrats, but not to Republicans, and then invited Democratic congressional leaders to participate in the official release?
I know I've hammered this point before, but the education reform movement has been playing a very aggressive long game when it comes to lobbying and PR. Add to that a tradition of advocate research and a culture that tends to eschew firewalls and turn a blind eye to conflicts of interest, then lubricate the gears with a flood of government contracts and private grants. The result is a movement prone to all manner of problems and abuses.

The problem isn't that most of the people in the movement are uncaring and insincere; it's that they aren't. The typical movement reformer cares deeply about kids and genuinely feels that our education system is in a state of crisis. Given that mindset, it's easy to understand the decision to feed the data to groups that will give it the 'correct' interpretation in those first few days when the narrative starts to set.

But to understand the behavior is one thing. To condone it is another. Official data needs to be presented so that all sides start on an equal footing, even if that means your side may lose.

* The Alliance for Excellent Education, Achieve, ACT, America Achieves, the Asia Society, the Business Roundtable, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the College Board, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the National Center on Education and the Economy.

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