You Might Be An Education Policy Hack If…You Attack Scientific Research Before It’s Been Conducted

When I wrote this post comparing teachers unions and the GOP my intention was to highlight what I perceived to be faux-outrage and intellectual rigidity exhibited by those opposed to charter schools and new teacher evaluation systems. Now it seems these people may have additional common ideological ground with GOP. Both groups are willing to attack science for political gain.

Last year, in an effort to cut spending, Republicans attacked government-funded research involving odd things like shrimp on treadmills. It didn’t matter that some of the research yielded important findings. This week, in order to score political points, Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss attacked researchers receiving money from the Gates Foundation.

Here’s Ravitch on a grant to Clemson University for studying how “Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets” can reveal student emotion and thus help with the evaluation of both students and teachers:

Yes, there is a Brave New World quality to the prospect of using wireless sensors to measure physiological reactions to teachers. Yes, there is a line that separates educationally sound ideas from crackpot theories. Yes, there is reason to be concerned about the degree of wisdom–or lack thereof– that informs the decisions of the world’s richest and most powerful foundations. And yes, we must worry about what part of our humanity is inviolable, what part of our humanity cannot be invaded by snoopers, what part of our humanity is off-limits to those who wish to quantify our experience and use it for their own purposes, be it marketing or teacher evaluation.

The line has been crossed.

I admit, the research sounds odd. But that’s the nature of University research. You just don’t know what you’ll find. Many of the tools and electronics we use every day came from research intended for some other purpose. That’s why we pay smart people with good ideas to invent things and figure out important stuff. It’s been a good model for a long time. The Gates Foundation is giving the money to extend the scope of scientific knowledge, not to conduct the widespread implementation of a finished product.

I doubt Ravitch is legitimately worried that the checks and balances in our institutions will be unable to stop a physically and emotionally intrusive device from being forcefully attached to public school students. (Although it is worth noting that one way to avoid her doomsday outcome would be to have open, publicly funded, and publicly accountable schools that operate independent of a school district. What do they call those again?) If 10 years from now Ravitch wants to stop the in-school implementation of GSR bracelets that go too far, she can join what I assume will be an extremely popular movement that aims to do just that. I would join it too. But her present attack on scientific research does nothing other than incite her followers to be fearful of change.

If Ravitch was less focused on attacking anybody with different ideas, she might also consider the potential uses of the bracelets that are more in line with her agenda. For example, the bracelets could provide convincing evidence of the detrimental effects testing has on student attention and engagement. I bet Ravitch could think of a lot of good uses for the bracelets, but unfortunately she’s too concerned with scoring political points.

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