Saturday, June 2, 2012

Bunkum Awards Spotlight Shoddy Education Research

Grand Prize Winner Says Charter Schools Should be Like Cancer

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, has announced the winners of the 2011 Bunkum Awards – presented for the most compellingly lousy educational research for the past year.

The 2011 Bunkum Grand Prize goes to the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), which received the “Cancer is Under-Rated Award” for Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best. In its report, which advocated the rapid expansion of preferred charter schools, PPI compared those charters to viruses and cancers.

PPI says that it “conducted research about when and how exponential growth occurs in the natural world, specifically examining mold, algae, cancer, crystals and viruses. We used these findings…to fuel our thinking about fresh directions for the charter sector.”

“The Progressive Policy Institute deserves our top award for combining a weak analysis, agenda-driven recommendations, and the most bizarre analogy we’ve seen in a long time,” stated Kevin Welner, director of NEPC. “This report spoke to us in ways matched by no other publication.”

Welner and the NEPC recognized the report for its almost complete lack of acceptable scientific evidence or original research supporting the policy suggestions, as well as its failure to make the case that its suggestions are relevant to school improvement. To view the NEPC review of this report, and for a link to the report itself, visit

The NEPC also awarded its “Get a Life(time) Achievement Award” to Dr. Matthew Ladner, senior advisor of policy and research for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. This is the first time NEPC bestowed an individual with a Bunkum Award.

“We’ve never before found someone with an individual record of Bunkum-worthy accomplishments that just cries out for recognition,” stated Welner. “Dr. Ladner’s body of Bunk-work is focused on his shameless hawking of what he and the Governor call the ‘Florida Formula’ for educational success.”

Specifically, Ladner argues that because Florida’s test scores had increased during a time period when Florida policy included things like school choice and grade retention, these policies must be responsible for the scores. Yet decades of evidence link grade retention practices to increased dropout rates, not to improved achievement.

Moreover, Florida’s recent test score results are notably unimpressive, but Ladner continues to promote his favored policies, blaming the scores on a slide in home prices and other factors he says are “impossible” to determine. Learn more at

NEPC’s other 2011 Bunkums

“Mirror Image Award (What You Read is Reversed),” to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Learning About Teaching (2011 First Runner-Up). Although the Foundation touted the report as “some of the strongest evidence to date of the validity of ‘value-added’ analysis,” showing that “teachers’ effectiveness can be reliably estimated by gauging their students’ progress on standardized tests,” the actual data show only a modest correlation between teachers’ effectiveness and students’ test scores.

“If Bernie Madoff Worked in School Finance Award,” to ConnCAN for Spend Smart: Fix Our Broken School Funding System. This report promotes a “money follows the child” funding system that would have the effect of making funding even more inequitable by shifting funding away from students in poverty and those learning English.

“If Political Propaganda Counted as Research Award,” to the Center for American Progress and the Broad Foundation, for Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn around the Nation’s Dropout Factories. Drawing on mysterious backwards-engineering techniques, the authors of this report build a foundation for their findings and conclusions that mimics real evidence.

“Discovering the Obvious While Obscuring the Important Award,” to Third Way for Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade. Mixing and matching data sources and units of analysis to such an extent that it’s almost impossible for readers to figure out which analyses go with which data, the report attempts to convince its readers that middle-class schools are doing a lot worse than we think. In fact, the results show the results of middle class schools to be … in the middle.

The word Bunkum comes from Buncombe County in North Carolina. Buncombe County produced a Congressman, Representative Felix Walker, who gained infamy back in 1820 for delivering a particularly meaningless, irrelevant and seemingly endless speech. Thus, bunkum became a term for long-winded nonsense of the kind often seen in politics, and today in education.

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