Think Tank vs Academic Work?

Holly Yettick’s paper, The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, is an interesting look at the sources of mentions on educational issues in Education Week, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Yet, in her conclusions, she overlooks several important additional considerations as to why think tank work may receive more coverage than academic research.

First, previous explorations into this topic point to an issue that Yettick neglects: In a 2003 survey by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, a large majority of journalists covering education declared most education research to be “so poorly written or jargon-laden” as to be incomprehensible. I think this is too broad a declaration (have you seen Andrew Ho explain growth models?), but you’d be hard-pressed to find folks to argue that the clarity of academic writing or presentation has dramatically improved over the past eight years.

Second, there are many times different conceptions of quality, goals, and intended audiences for work from these different institutions and authors. As an organization that attempts to draw on strengths from research, policy analysis, and journalism, Education Sector struggles with the tensions that each field brings to the work. For example, Yettick mentions the advantages of the peer review process. But, while in our internal standards, intellectual and methodological rigor top the list, we also include others that can conflict with the peer review process itself: timely, solution-oriented, and clearly communicated.

Third, the three media sources she surveys are all national media. Much academic work, particularly in education and public universities, focuses on local or regional issues.

More importantly, though, are the paper’s assumptions that think tank work is necessarily opposed to academic research. Many academics collaborate with think tanks to publish and promote research. And, much of the best think tank work draws on, synthesizes, and makes academic research accessible to lay audiences. For example, On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time, one of our more cited reports from my colleague Elena Silva, is not original research, but draws on a wide variety of more traditional research sources.

Clearly, any work offers opportunities for bias in the selection and characterization of the underlying research. But, mention of a think tank report in the media may further findings from — not compete with — academic research. Rather than thinking of academic research and think tank work as separate, opposing worlds, it’s better to understand the myriad of connecting pieces. An artificial divide masks the reality that there’s almost certainly more variability — with regards to both quality and bias — within these worlds than between the two. So, let’s use the work itself, rather than a particular label, to make judgments.

-Bill Tucker

PS – Yettick also acknowledges the difficulty of characterizing many organization’s political positions. I take it as a good sign that she specifically mentioned Education Sector as being hard to pin down. (Much to the surprise of our friends at CATO, she characterized us as “center-libertarian” and classified our citations as on the right to compare the overall political perspective of media mentions.)

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