A lawmaker is not a researcher

An article in yesterday's Washington Post reports on Grover Whitehurst's efforts as founding director of the Institute of Education Sciences to improve the quality and impact of education research.

The No Child Left Behind Act, in which the phrase "scientifically based research" appears 111 times, according to Whitehurst, has undoubtedly upped the demand for more and better education data. But the whole enterprise has proved too politically sensitive for Congress to be able to do it well:

Whitehurst, who in late 2002 became the founding director of the department's Institute of Education Sciences, has discovered that his vision for the role of research sometimes conflicts with the turbulent forces of politics, policy and public opinion.

... [One] proposal called for recruiting double the number of students that Upward Bound is able to serve. Half would participate in the program, and half would become a control group. Researchers would track the progress of both groups.

Scientifically, it was sound. Politically, it was a non-starter.

Critics said it was unethical to introduce at-risk kids to Upward Bound's opportunities if officials knew they couldn't participate. At a February hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) called the evaluation design "discriminatory."

After lawmakers proposed legislation to halt the study, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings agreed to scrap it.

That's just one example of how lawmakers-turned-program evaluators have mucked things up. For a gorier picture, see Fordham's recent report on the Reading First scandal. That program was designed to channel tax dollars to primary-reading programs based on scientific research. What happened? The pot of public money attracted a swarm of vultures who pecked and clawed each other mercilessly, bringing down the program with them.

What's surprising is that so many people continue to believe that these embarrassments stem from a failure of political will, rather than the inherent obstacles posed by, as the Post puts it, the "turbulent forces of politics, policy and public opinion." We always think we'll do better next time around, when our guys or gals are in office.

But lawmakers have proven again and again (and it's only natural, given the dynamics of representative government) that the voices of constituents and interest groups are louder than the voice of science. For another great example of this, see Michael Pollan's wildly-popular New York Times essay on how the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition was hijacked by the meat and dairy lobbies and consequently released "scientifically-based" nutrition guidelines that have proven remarkably wrong-headed and disastrously influential on our eating habits.

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February 29, 2008
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