The Death of the Think Tank, R.I.P.

By 03/30/2015

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by Jay P. Greene

The recent firing of Russ Whitehurst as head of the education unit at Brookings marks the demise of the think tank.  Russ is an experimental psychologist who became the founding director of the Institute for Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.  In that role he championed the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to study the effectiveness of educational policies and interventions, which was a huge improvement in rigor for US ED-funded projects.  He then took that rigor to Brookings, where he and his colleagues conducted policy-relevant and rapid research that met high standards of social science.

But Brookings and most other think tanks have lost interest in rigorous social science.  There is relatively little thinking at think tanks these days.  Instead, they have chosen to focus almost exclusively on advocacy efforts, not realizing that effective advocacy requires generating new, high-quality information.  Without rigorous research, think tanks just repeat talking points, trying to be more clever in their phrasing and more persistent in their communication so they can be heard above the din of everyone else doing the same.

It’s a losing strategy, at least for education reformers.  The unions and their allies also know how to  repeat talking points endlessly.  And they have the resources and the numbers to drown out reformers.  Reformers have delusions of influence because of the thousands of followers they have on Twitter and the number of hits to their web sites, failing to realize how much bigger the likes of Diane Ravitch and her Army of Angry Teachers are in social media.  In their insular little world, think tank based education reformers are Kings of the Lilliputians.

The only way to beat the larger and better-resourced education establishment is with superior information.  Reasonable but uncommitted policymakers and influential elites have their doubts about the education status quo, but they are unsure about what the nature of the problems are or how to fix them.  The unions and their allies have explanations.  Schools are plagued by insufficient resources and the social problems of poverty, they say.  The solutions they offer are increased spending and broader, bolder social services in schools as the best way to improve education.  If reformers have different descriptions of the problems and want to offer alternative solutions, they need quality evidence to persuade reasonable but undecided policy elites.  Reformers can’t out-talk or out-spin the ed establishment.  They have to out-think them and that requires rigorous research.

Unfortunately, foundations and other donors are driving the shift in think tanks away from research.  In a recent analysis I did for a forthcoming book on education and philanthropy, I found that the largest 15 education foundations devote only 5.9% of their giving to support research, some of which is actually advocacy disguised as phony research.  These foundations spend nearly 5 times as much on activities that are undisguised advocacy efforts.  And most of this small amount for research funding is going to universities, so the ratio of support for research relative to advocacy at think tanks is completely out of whack.

I understand the need for people who are effective communicators to translate and summarize research for a policy audience.  But when funding for advocacy exceeds rigorous research by more than 5 to 1, there won’t be enough research for all of those communicators to translate and summarize.  They’ll just endlessly spout unsupported blather, which is what many of them are now doing.  And they are doing this because that’s what the donors and foundations have chosen to fund.

Foundations need to restore a balance between supporting quality research and advocacy if they wish to succeed in improving the education system.  They can do this by increasing support for research done at universities.  Many of the factors that drove foundations to support research at think tanks instead of universities have disappeared.  Academics were once too slow in producing work and tended to shun policy relevant topics.  No more.  It is now common and rewarded practice for professors to address current issues and release working papers with results quickly.   And the ideological stranglehold that hindered honest examination of reform efforts has also loosened significantly.  If think tanks are really dead, then long live research at universities… but only if the foundations devote more funding to it.

Perhaps think tanks are only mostly dead.  There are pockets of individuals in think tanks who still do quality empirical work.  If foundations decide to support more of their work and push think tanks to hire more of them (and not fire quality researchers like Russ Whitehurst), perhaps the currently brain-dead think tank can be brought back to life.

The future of quality education research rests in the hands of program officers and trustees at the leading foundations.  Government funding for research is shrinking and is increasingly politicized.  If we want to see more rigorous research and less Twitter drivel, foundations will need to change their funding priorities.

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