2006 Bunkum Awards in Education

Previous Years:  2007

The Bunkum Awards highlight nonsensical, confusing, and disingenuous education reports produced by think tanks. They are given each year by the Think Tank Review Project to think tank reports judged to have most egregiously undermined informed discussion and sound policy making.

Why the Bunkum Awards Were Created

Truthiness in Education
February 28, 2007
Kevin G. Welner and Alex Molnar
Education Week
At a time when America’s education policymakers have nominally embraced the idea of tying school reform to "scientifically based research," many of the nation’s most influential reports are little more than junk science. A hodgepodge of private "think tanks" at both the state and national levels wield significant and very often undeserved influence in policy discussions by cranking out an array of well-funded and slickly produced – yet ideologically driven – research.

2006 Award Winners

Caveat Emptor Award
The Lexington Institute
This year's grand prize is given to the Lexington Institute for its report "Immersion, Not Submersion, Vol III." This report purports to demonstrate the success of California's Proposition 227, an anti-bilingual ballot initiative passed in 1998 that emphasizes English-only teaching methods. The Lexington report's findings rest on a smorgasbord of bad data, severely flawed methodology, and a willful disregard of a large body of conflicting research evidence.

Truthiness in Education Award
The Fordham Institute
The first runner up is the Fordham Institute for two reports: "Trends in Charter School Authorizing" and "The State of State Standards 2006." In each case, Fordham authors collected data, analyzed the data, and then presented conclusions that their own data and analyses flatly contradicted.

Damned Lies Award for Statistical Subterfuge
The Manhattan Institute
Harvard Program for Education Policy and Governance
The Program for Education Policy and Governance at Harvard and the Manhattan Institute share the second runner up honor. The Harvard folks won for their "On the Public-Private School Achievement Debate," while the Manhattan Institute is being recognized for its twin reports "Getting Ahead by Staying Behind: An Evaluation of Florida's Program to End Social Promotion" and "Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida's Policy to end Social Promotion." Each of these reports demonstrated a flair for the resolute use of statistics to achieve a desired outcome. The Harvard report, however, deserves special recognition. Dissatisfied with the work of other researchers who found private schools to have worse academic results than public schools once student characteristics were accounted for, the authors of the Harvard report offered an alternative of, at best, tangentially related statistics that failed to factor in the student demographic differences that were supposedly at the core of the analysis.

Honorable Mentions

The Cato Institution
The Cato Institution is recognized for "Giving Students the Chaff: How to Find and Keep the Teachers We Need." After sensibly describing the importance of high-quality teachers, the authors take a leap of faith, ungrounded in their own research or the larger body of existing research, to conclude that choice and vouchers offer the best strategy for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers.

The Reason Foundation
The Reason Foundation is recognized for "Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers and Policymakers." This report relied on selective citation of research and then presented policy conclusions poorly linked to the limited literature reviewed as well as to the authors' own findings.

Ohio's Buckeye Institute
Ohio's Buckeye Institute is recognized for "The Financial Impact of Ohio's Charter Schools." Buckeye's report offers a wonderful illustration of the logical fallacy, "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (after this, therefore because of this). After noting that charter school growth coincided with revenue growth in urban school districts, the report announced the unfounded conclusion that the first caused the second.

About the Bunkum Awards

Think Tank Review Project
The Think Tank Review Project provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think-tank publications. The project is a collaborative effort of the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University and the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado.

Thirteen reports by 10 different think tanks were reviewed in 2006 by independent scholars. Reviewers for the Think Tank Review Project apply academic peer review standards to reports from think tanks and write brief reviews for the project web site. They are asked to examine the reports for the validity of assumptions, methodology, results, and strength of links between results and policy recommendations. The reviews, written in non-academic language, are intended to help policy makers, reporters, and others assess the merits of the reviewed reports.

The Think Tank Review Project is made possible by funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Bunkum: Background
From the "MacMillan English Dictionary Magazine":
This word started life in its current sense of 'nonsense' in around 1820 and its original spelling was 'buncombe'. It comes from the name of a county in North Carolina, USA: Buncombe. During a debate in Congress, the county's representative, Felix Walker, delivered a seemingly endless speech which many present felt to be meaningless and irrelevant, but the congressman refused to stop talking, declaring himself to be determined to deliver a speech 'for Buncombe'. Thus, bunkum became a term for long-winded nonsense of the kind often seen in politics, and from there progressed to the more general meaning of just plain 'nonsense'