Kane’s (Ironic) Calls for an Education Equivalent to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA)

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Thomas Kane, an economics professor from Harvard University who also directed the $45 million worth of Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been the source of multiple posts on this blog (see, for example, here, here, and here). He is consistently backing, with his Harvard affiliation in tow, VAMs, as per a series of exaggerated, but as he argues, research-based claims.

However, much of the work that Kane cites, he himself has written on the topic (sometimes with coauthors). Likewise, the strong majority of these works have not been published in peer reviewed journals, but rather as technical reports or book chapters, often in his own books (see for example Kane’s curriculum vitae (CV) here). This includes the technical reports derived via his aforementioned MET studies, now in technical report and book form, but now completed three years ago in 2013, and still not externally vetted and published in any said journal. Lack of publication of the MET studies might be due to some of the methodological issues within these particular studies, however (see published and unpublished, (in)direct criticisms of these studies here, here, and here). Although Kane does also cite some published studies authored by others, again, in support of VAMs, the studies Kane cites are primarily/only authored by econometricians (e.g., Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff) and, accordingly, largely unrepresentative of the larger literature surrounding VAMs.

With that being said, and while I do try my best to stay aboveboard as an academic who takes my scholarly and related blogging activities seriously, sometimes it is hard to, let’s say, not “go there” when more than deserved. Now is one of those times for what I believe is a fair assessment of one example of Kane’s unpublished and externally un-vetted works.

Last week on National Public Radio (NPR), Kane was interviewed by Eric Westervelt in a series titled “There Is No FDA For Education. Maybe There Should Be.” Ironically, in 2009 I made this claim in an article that I authored and that was published in Education Leadership. I began the piece noting that “The value-added assessment model is one over-the-counter product that may be detrimental to your health.” I ended the article noting that “We need to take our education health as seriously as we take our physical health…[hence, perhaps] the FDA approach [might] also serve as a model to protect the intellectual health of the United States. [It] might [also] be a model that legislators and education leaders follow when they pass legislation or policies whose benefits and risks are unknown” (Amrein-Beardsley, 2009).

Never did I foresee, however, how much my 2009 calls for such an approach similar to Kane’s recent calls during this interview would ironically apply, now, and precisely because of academics like Kane. In other words, ironic is that Kane is now calling for “rigorous vetting” of educational research, as he claims is being done with medical research, but those rules apparently do not apply to his own work, and the scholarly works he perpetually cites in favor of VAMs.

Take also, for example, some of the more specific claims Kane expressed in this particular NPR interview.

Kane claims that “The point of education research is to identify effective interventions for closing the achievement gap.” Although elsewhere in the same interview Kane claims that “American education research [has also] mostly languished in an echo chamber for much of the last half century.” While NPR’s Westervelt criticizes Kane for making a “pretty scathing and strong indictment” of America’s education system, what Kane does not understand writ large is that the very solutions for which Kane advocates – using VAM-based measurements to fire and hire bad and good teachers, respectively – are really no different than the “stronger accountability” measures upon which we have relied for the last 40 years (since the minimum competency testing era) within this alleged “echo chamber.” Kane himself, then, IS one of the key perpetrators and perpetuators of the very “echo chamber” of which he speaks, and also scorns and indicts. Kane simply does not realize (or acknowledge) that this “echo chamber” continues in its persistence because of those who continue to preserve a stronger accountability for educational reform logic, and who continue to reinvent “new and improved” accountability measures and policies to support this logic, accordingly.

Kane also claims that he does not “point fingers at the school officials out there” for not being able to reform our schools for the better, and in this particular case, for closing the achievement gap. But unfortunately, Kane does. Recall the article Kane authored and that the New York Daily News published, titled “Teachers Must Look in the Mirror,” in which Kane insults New York’s administrators, writing that the fact that 96% of teachers in New York were given the two highest ratings last year – “effective” or “highly effective” – was “a sure sign that principals have not been honest to date.” Enough said.

The only thing with which I do agree with Kane as per this NPR interview is that we as an academic community can certainly do a better job of translating research into action, although I would add that only externally-reviewed published research is that which is worthy of actually turning into action, in practice. Hence, my repeated critiques of research studies on this blog, that are sometimes not even internally vetted or reviewed before being released to the public, and then the media, and then the masses as “truth.” Recall, for example, when the Chetty et al. studies (mentioned prior as also often cited by Kane) were cited in President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, regardless of the fact that the Chetty et al. studies had not even been internally reviewed by their sponsoring agency – the National Bureau of Education Research (NBER) – prior to their public release? This is also regardless of the fact that the federal government’s “What Works Clearinghouse”- also positioned in this NPR interview by Kane as the closest entity we have so far to an educational FDA – noted grave concerns about this study at the same time (as have others since; see, for example, here, here, here, and here).

Now this IS bad practice, although on this, Kane is also guilty.

To put it lightly, and in sum, I’m confused by Kane’s calls for such an external monitoring/quality entity akin to the FDA. While I could not agree more with his statement of need, as I also argued in my 2009 piece mentioned prior, it is because of educational academics like Kane that I have to continue to make such claims and calls for such monitoring and regulation.

Reference: Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2009). Buyers be-aware: What you don’t know can hurt you. Educational Leadership, 67(3), 38-42.

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2 thoughts on “Kane’s (Ironic) Calls for an Education Equivalent to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA)

  1. I am really leery of some version of an FDA for educational research. I have seen the regional labs co-opted to market RTT policies and noticed that the IES conducts reviews of research based on the \”publicity\” surrounding a study. I am also familiar with the \”quality\” rating schemes funded by the Gates, Walton, Carnegie and other foundations and fronts for their agendas such as the Education Trust and the CORE district project in California. The National Council for Teacher Quality is a sham and shaming operation for teacher education programs. Another rating scheme set up by Gates does a triage on instructional materials faulting anything not 100% compliant with the CCSS. Even the NAEP is being compromised. I do not have a remedy for the influence of the free flow of think tank tomes with great graphics into the policy and practice stream, but I have no doubt that your work, and the independent work of others, merits more trust than the tsunami of propaganda parading as research. Keep hammering and enlisting others in disclosing nonsense. It is amazing that Kane seems to have gotten away with theft of your idea, even if I think you idea is also loaded with hazards.

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