2007 Bunkum Awards in Education

Previous Years:  2006

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.

NON SEQUITUR (c) 2007 Wiley Miller. Dist. By UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

NON SEQUITUR (c) 2007 Wiley Miller. Dist. By UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

The Think Tank Review Project in 2007

The Privatization Infatuation
February 19, 2008
Kevin G. Welner and Alex Molnar
Education Week
In 2007, the second year of our Think Tank Review Project (thinktankreview.org), we reviewed 18 think-tank reports about education policy. Time after time, our reviewers identified analyses that led inexorably to a privatization prescription. Even reports that offered a reasonable analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act or the dropout problem suddenly and groundlessly identified as the key policy implication of their findings the need for vouchers or other forms of privatization.

2007 Award Winners

Caveat Emptor Award
The Friedman Foundation
This year's grand prize is given to the Friedman Foundation for its impressive body of shoddy work, artistically combining exaggeration, misleading statements, skewed use of research, and unsupported conclusions. Perhaps the most worthy of these is a September 2007 Friedman handbook entitled, "The ABC’s of School Choice". It purported to summarize the research on several forms of choice programs. Our reviewer concluded, "Evidence -- particularly on the issue of achievement -- is consistently abused in this report, both by misrepresenting individual studies (including those by voucher advocates) and misrepresenting the general body of research on choice."

Inferential Long Jump Award
The American Legislative Exchange Council
The Cato Institute
Unquestioned faith that privatization in one form or another will solve educational problems was a pervasive think tank theme throughout 2007. Repeatedly, our reviewers pointed out instances where reports made an Olympian inferential leap to market remedies, even though the rest of the report provided little or no empirical support for that conclusion. Our two winners bounded the longest distance: a Cato report entitled, End It, Don’t Mend It: What to Do with No Child Left Behind and the Report Card on American Education, published by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

60 Cent Solution Award
The Friedman Foundation
A May 2007 Friedman report trumpeted its finding that the nation’s "twelve [voucher] programs have saved a total of nearly half a billion dollars" (School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs 1990 – 2006). Our reviewer, however, noted that even if the report’s flawed calculations were accepted, a savings of a half-billion dollars was "a savings of less than 1/100th of one percent of annual public school spending, or about 60 cents per child per year."

Who Reads Warning Labels? Award
The Manhattan Institute
In How Much Are Public School Teachers Paid the Manhattan Institute author used hourly earnings data to contend that teachers are better paid than most white-collar professionals. This might have been impressive except, as our reviewer noted "this approach is fundamentally flawed because the [dataset’s] calculation of weeks and hours worked is very different for teachers and other professionals. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics – which publishes the [dataset] – has explicitly warned its users not to use hourly rates of pay in this exact same context."

With Friends Like These Award
The Buckeye Institute
Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, in Shortchanging Disadvantaged Students: An Analysis of Intra-district Spending Patterns in Ohio, argued against increased state funding for school districts on the grounds that those districts did not fairly allocate money to schools serving disadvantaged students. The review of the report raised serious questions about the validity of the calculations and conclusions. But beyond that, we were somewhat taken aback by the report’s novel argument which was essentially, 'Because we care about disadvantaged students getting insufficient resources, we recommend against more state funding.'

Chutzpah Award
The Friedman Foundation
We give this special award to the Friedman Foundation, which places on page two of each of its reports a section entitled, "Our Challenge To You." The passage begins, "Our research adheres to the highest standards of scientific rigor," and it ends with "prove us wrong. Judge our work by scientific standards and see how it measures up. If you can find anything in our work that doesn’t follow sound empirical methods, by all means say so. We welcome any and all scientific critique of our work..." Over the first two years of the Think Tank Review Project, six reviews of Friedman studies were published. Two reviews included substantial praise, mixed with varying degrees of criticism; the four others generally described the Friedman reports as misleading and poorly grounded – certainly not adhering to "the highest standards of scientific rigor." Yet, notwithstanding the page two "Challenge," we have received no communications from the Friedman Foundation to date, and the key shortcomings found by reviewers have never been addressed by the Friedman Foundation. The Foundation has also not softened its penchant for publishing reports that selectively and misleadingly cite research and that routinely make grand and unsupported inferential leaps to arrive at policy recommendations arguing for privatization.

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.

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. Our 2007 commentary in Education Week, explains why the Bunkum Awards were created (see "Truthiness in Education").

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'.