Can reporters raise their game in writing about education research?

I know that I still owe readers the ultimate education platform and the big, hairy erratum I promised last month, but the issue of research vetting has popped up in the education blogule*, and it’s something I’ve been intending to discuss for some time, so it’s taking up my pre-10:30-am time today. In brief, Eduwonkette dismisses the new Manhattan Institute report on Florida’s high-stakes testing regime as thinktankery, drive-by research with little credibility because it hasn’t been vetted by peer review. Later in the day, she modified that to explain why she was willing to promote working papers published through the National Bureau of Economic Research or the RAND Corporation: they have a vetting process for researchers or reports, and their track record is longer. Jay Greene (one of the Manhattan Institute report’s authors and a key part of the think tank’s stable of writers) replied with probably the best argument against eduwonkette (or any blogger) in favor of using PR firms for unvetted research: as with blogs, publicizing unvetted reports involves a tradeoff between review and publishing speed, a tradeoff that reporters and other readers are aware of.

Releasing research directly to the public and through the mass media and internet improves the speed and breadth of information available, but it also comes with greater potential for errors. Consumers of this information are generally aware of these trade-offs and assign higher levels of confidence to research as it receives more review, but they appreciate being able to receive more of it sooner with less review.

In other words, caveat lector.


We’ve been down this road before with blogs in the anonymous Ivan Tribble column in fall 2005, responses such as Timothy Burke’s, a second Tribble column, another round of responses such as Miriam Burstein’s, and an occasional recurrence of sniping at blogs (or, in the latest case, Laura Blankenship’s dismay at continued sniping). I could expand on Ernest Boyer’s discussion of why scholarship should be defined broadly, or Michael Berube’s discussion of “raw” and “cooked” blogs, but if you’re reading this entry, you probably don’t need all that. Suffice to say that there is a broad range of purpose and quality of blogging, some blogs such as The Valve or the Volokh Conspiracy have become lively places for academics, while others such as the The Panda’s Thumb are more of a site for the public intellectual side of academics. These are retrospective judgments that are only possible after many months of consistent writing in each blog.

This retrospective judgment is a post facto evaluation of credibility, an evaluation that is also possible for institutional work. That judgment is what Eduwonkette is referring to when making a distinction between RAND and NBER, on the one hand, and the Manhattan Institute, on the other. Because of previous work she has read, she trusts RAND and NBER papers more. (She’s not alone in that judgment of Manhattan Institute work, but I’m less concerned this morning with the specific case than the general principles.)

If an individual researcher needed to rely on a track record to be credible, we’d essentially be stuck in the intellectual equivalent of country clubs: only the invited need apply. That exists to some extent with citation indices such as Web of Science, but it’s porous. One of the most important institutional roles of refereed journals and university presses is to lend credibility to new or unknown scholars who do not have a preexisting track record. To a sociologist of knowledge, refereeing serves a filtering purpose to sort out which researchers and claims to knowledge will be able to borrow institutional credibility/prestige.

Online technologies have created some cracks in these institutional arrangements in two ways: reducing the barriers to entry for new credibility-lending arrangements (i.e., online journals such as the Bryn Mawr Classical Review or Education Policy Analysis Archives) and making large banks of disciplinary working papers available for broad access (such as NBER in economics or arXiv in physics). To some extent, as John Willinsky has written, this ends up in an argument over the complex mix of economic models and intellectual principles. But its more serious side also challenges the refereeing process. To wit, in judging a work how much are we to rely on pre-publication reviewing and how much on post-publication evaluation and use?

To some extent, the reworking of intellectual credibility in the internet age will involve judgments of status as well as intellectual merit. To avoid doing so risks the careers of new scholars and status-anxious administrators, which is why Harvard led the way on open-access archiving for “traditional” disciplines and Stanford has led the way on open-access archiving for education, and I would not be surprised at all if Wharton or Chicago leads in an archiving policy for economics/business schools. Older institutions with little status at risk in open-access models might make it safer for institutions lower in the higher-ed hierarchy (or so I hope). (Explaining the phenomenon of anonymous academic blogging is left as an exercise for the reader.)

But the status issue doesn’t address the intellectual question. If not for the inevitable issues of status, prestige, credibility, etc., would refereeing serve a purpose? No serious academic believes that publication inherently blesses the ideas in an article or book; publishable is different from influential. Nonetheless, refereeing serves a legitimate human side of academe, the networking side that wants to know which works have influenced others, which are judged classics, … and which are judged publishable. Knowing that an article has gone through a refereeing process comforts the part of my training and professional judgment that values a community of scholarship with at least semi-coherent heuristics and methods. That community of scholarship can be fooled (witness Michael Bellesiles and the Bancroft Prize), but I still find it of some value.

Beyond the institutional credibility and community-of-scholarship issues, of course we can read individual works on their own merit, and I hope we all do. Professionally-educated researchers have more intellectual tools which we can bring to bear on working papers, think-tank reports, and the like. And that’s our advantage over journalists; we know the literature in our area (or should), and we know the standard methodological strengths and weaknesses in the area (or should). On the other hand, journalists are paid to look at work quickly, while I always have competing priorities the day a think-tank report appears.

That gap provides a structural advantage to at least minimally-funded think tanks: they can hire publicists to push reports, and reporters will always be behind the curve in terms of evaluating the reports. More experienced reporters know a part of the relevant literature and some of the more common flaws in research, but the threshold for publication in news is not quality but newsworthiness. As news staffs shrink, individual reporters find that their beats become much larger, time for researching any story shorter, and the news hole chopped up further and further. (News blogs solve the news-hole problem but create one more burden for individual reporters.)

Complicating reporters’ lack of time and research background is the limited pool of researchers who carve out time for reporters’ calls and who understand their needs. In Florida, I am one of the usual suspects for education policy stories because I call reporters back quickly. While a few of my colleagues disdain reporting or fear being misquoted, the greater divide is cultural: reporters need contacts to respond within hours, not days, and they need something understandable and digestible. If a reporter leaves me a message and e-mails me about a story, I take some time to think about the obvious questions, figure out a way of explaining a technical issue, and try to think about who else the reporter might contact. It takes relatively little time, most of my colleagues could outthink me in this way, and somehow I still get called more than hundreds of other education or history faculty in the state. But enough about me: the larger point is that reporters usually have few contacts who have both the expertise and time to read a report quickly and provide context or evaluation before the reporter’s deadline. Education Week reporters have more leeway because of the weekly cycle, but when the goal of a publicist is to place stories in the dailies, they have all the advantages with general reporters or reporters new to the education beat.

In this regard, the Hechinger Institute‘s workshops provide some important help to reporters, but everything I have read about the workshops are usually oriented to current topics, providing ideas for stories, and a matter of general context and “what’s hot” rather than helping reporters respond to press releases. Yet reporters need the help from a research perspective that’s still geared to their needs. So let me take a stab at what should appear in reporting on any research in education, at least from my idiosyncratic readers’ perspective. I’ll use the reporter’s 5 W’s, split into publication and methods issues:

  • Publication who: authors’ names and institutional affiliations (both employer and publisher) are almost always described.
  • Publication what: title of the work and conclusions are also almost always described. Reporters are less successful in describing the research context, or how an article fits into the existing literature. Press releases are rarely challenged on claims of uniqueness or what is new about an article, and think-tank reports are far less likely than refereed articles or books to cite the broadly relevant literature. When reporters call me, they frequently ask me to evaluate the methods or meaning but rarely explicitly ask me, “Is this really new?”My suggested classification: entirely new, replicates or confirms existing research, or is counter to existing research. Reporters could address this problem by asking sources about uniqueness, and editors should demand this.
  • Publication when: publication date is usually reported, and occasionally the timing context becomes the story (as when a few federal reports were released on summer Fridays).
  • Publication where: rarely relevant to reporters, unless the institutional sponsor or author is local.
  • Publication why: Usually left implicit or addressed when quoting the “so what?” answer of a study author. Reporters could explicitly state whether the purpose of a study is to answer fundamental issues (such as basic education psychology), applied (as with teaching methods), attempting to influence, etc.
  • Publication how: Usually described at a superficial level. Reporters leave the question of refereeing as implicit: they will mention a journal or press, but I rarely see an explicit statement that a publication is either peer-reviewed or not peer-reviewed. There is no excuse for reporters to omit this information.
  • Content who: the study participants/subjects are often described if there’s a coherent data set or number. Reporters are less successful in describing who are excluded from studies, though this should be important to readers and reporters could easily add this information.
  • Content what: how a researcher gathered data and broader design parameters are described if simple (e.g., secondary analysis of a data set) or if there is something unique or clever (as with some psychology research). More complex or obscure measures are usually simplified. This problem could be addressed, but it may be more difficult with some studies than with others.
  • Content when: if the data is fresh, this is generally reported. Reporters are weaker when describing reports that rely on older data sets. This is a simple issue to address.
  • Content where: Usually reported, unless the study setting is masked or an experimental environment.
  • Content why: Reporters usually report the researchers’ primary explanation of a phenomenon. They rarely write about why the conclusion is superior to alternative explanations, either the researchers’ explanations or critics’. The one exception to this superficiality is on research aimed at changing policy; in that realm, reporters have become more adept at probing for other explanations. When writing about non-policy research, reporters can ask more questions about alternative explanations.
  • Content how: The details of statistical analyses are rarely described, unless a reporter can find a researcher who is quotable on it, and then the reporting often strikes me as conclusory, quoting the critic rather than explaining the issue in depth. This problem is the most difficult one for reporters to address, both because of limited background knowledge and also because of limited column space for articles.

Let’s see how reporters did in covering the new Manhattan Institute report, using the St Petersburg Times (blog), Education Week (blog thus far), and New York Sun (printed). This is a seat-of-the-pants judgment, but I think it shows the strengths and weaknesses of reporting on education research:

Criterion Times (blog) Ed Week (blog) Sun
Publication
Who Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
What Weak Acceptable Weak
When Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
Where N/A N/A N/A
Why Implicit only
Implicit only
Implicit only
How Acceptable Absent Absent
Content
Who Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
What Weak Weak Weak
When Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
Where Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
Why Weak Acceptable Weak
How Weak Weak Weak

Remarks: I rated the Times and Sun items as weak in “publication what” because there was no attempt to put the conclusions in the broader research context. All pieces implied rather than explicitly stated that the purpose of the report was to influence policy (specifically, to bolster high-stakes accountability policies). Only the Times blog noted that the report was not peer-reviewed. All three had “weak” in “content what” because none of them described the measures (individual student scale scores on science adjusted by standard deviation). Only the Ed Week blog entry mentioned alternative hypotheses. None described the analytical methods in depth.

While some parts of reporting on research is hard to improve on a short deadline (especially describing regression discontinuity analysis or evaluating the report without the technical details), the Ed Week blog entry was better than the others in in several areas, with the important exception of describing the non-refereed nature of the report. So, education reporters: can
you raise your game?

* – Blogule is an anagram of globule and connotes something less global than blogosphere. Or at least I prefer it. Could you please spread it?

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