2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Spin Cycle

Spin Cycle: How Research Gets Used in Policy Debates-the Case of Charter Schools Jeffrey R. Henig (Russell Sage Foundation, 2008)

When researchers become pawns in ideological battles

In 2004, when the New York Times spotlighted research showing that students at conventional public schools were outperforming their charter school counterparts, it triggered a firestorm of claims and counter-claims by education scholars. To Jeffrey Henig, TC Professor of Political Science and Education, this exchange exemplified a disturbing trend: the failure of supposedly objective research to transcend ideology and settle important policy questions of the day.

“Despite high hopes about its potential to promote collective learning and a more informed democracy, research often seems to appear on the public stage in a swirl of political sloganeering that defies reason, fogs understanding and runs the risk of reducing scientific evidence to the status of Madison Avenue advertising claims,” writes Henig in Spin Cycle: How Research Gets Used in Policy Debates—the Case of Charter Schools.

In private, Henig notes, researchers in each camp have conceded that charter schools are a mixed bag. So why hasn’t there been more consensus in their public dialogue? Henig at least partly blames “the echo chamber of [our] overly partisan and ideologically polarized society”; conservatives’ framing the charter school debate “in terms of market versus government”; the tendency of funding organizations to avoid studies that could support unwelcome conclusions; and ideologically driven space-allocation decisions by the media.

Ultimately, though, the Internet may be the biggest culprit. “Even preliminary findings often get tremendously broad dissemination within incredibly short periods,” Henig writes, with peer review an obvious casualty. “Arguably, [researchers] would be better off bearing politicians’ irritation with our tentativeness and disdain for our deliberateness than losing touch with the norms and procedures that over the long run set research apart and give it what authority it deserves.”

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