In this post I am going to look at the question Is the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) Report on Teacher Prep Junk Science? In my last post, I suggested that the NCTQ report on teacher preparation is an example of junk science. Matthew Weinstein, professor of education at Kent State University commented on that post, and supported my claim linking NCTQ and junk science. He also pointed me to Science Mart: Privatizing American Science by Philip Mirowski, professor Economics and Policy Studies, University of Notre Dame, and the PBS NCTQ report interview with education correspondent John Merrow. I will show that the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep is junk science, and support my claim with research and examples from the literature.
What is Junk Science? There are various meanings of the term junk science. In the realms that I explore here, science and teacher preparation, we need to recognize, as Michael Apple points out, that private think tanks seek to advance their ideological agendas often based on shoddy research and biased marketed news reports. It is in this context that the term junk science has become part of our culture. Susan Jacoby (2008) suggests that junk science is generally synonymous with pseudoscience in that there is an attempt to explain the physical or the social universe, including education, which can neither be proved or disproved. Another definition of junk science is any scientific data (physical and biological sciences, and well as the social sciences, including education) research or analysis considered to be spurious or fraudulent (Wikipedia, 2013). Junk science can also be a term to describe a poorly performed study that makes sweeping, and incorrect conclusions, despite the study’s weakness in methods for collecting and analyzing data.
You will find out that the NCTQ report on teacher preparation fits each of these definitions.
Examples of Junk Science.
For some perspective, the following are examples in the history of “junk science.” It is in these contexts, and understandings that I will show that the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep is a fraudulent and spurious study of teacher preparation in American institutions of higher education.
Social Darwinism. Susan Jacoby (2008) helps us understand junk science by pointing us to the work of Yale political science professor William Graham Sumner. Sumner wrote articles for mass-market circulation about social Darwinism. Professor Sumner, according to Jacoby, twisted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection by proposing that those that got to the top got there through fair competition using the concept of survival of the fittest, an incorrect interpretation of Darwin.
As Jacoby explains, these Sumner and his followers “enshrined competition and validated the worthiness of whoever and whatever came out on top. In his writings, Sumner “declared emphatically that business titans of the Gilded Age were ‘a product of natural selection…just like great statesmen, or scientific men, or military men.” (Jacoby, S., 2008). In Europe and the U.S. social Darwinism was the ideology that linked biological concepts of Darwinism or of evolutionary theory to sociology and politics, often with the assumption that conflict between groups in society leads to social progress as superior groups outcompete inferior ones.
Those who did make it were validated by means of Sumner’s false interpretation of Darwin’s theory. Social Darwinism is alive and well today in education. The movement to privatize public schooling and use market economics and competition is seen by many prominent educators to set up the potential for the destruction of public education. Sumner’s ideas had enormous influence and Jacoby puts it this way:
Academics like Sumner would have done enough damage had their theories been confined to classrooms in which élite young men were indoctrinated in the worship of untrammeled capitalism, but they were able to extend their influence on a previously unimaginable scale by writing for national magazines like Collier’s, aimed at a vast middle-class audience. Then as now, the public was overwhelmed by information and misinformation filtered through new technologies. Many Americans possessed just enough education to be fascinated by late nineteenth-century advances in both science and technology, but they had too little education to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled social theories in the guise of science. Jacoby, S., 2008, The Age of American Unreason, Kindle Locations 1220-1225. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, extracted June 28, 2013. (Emphasis mine)
According to Jacoby, social Darwinism became the first mass-marketed wave of pseudoscience, or what we call today junk science. How did junk science become a mainstream enterprise in American society? Over the past fifty years, American corporations and their related industries (pesticides, tobacco, oil) have created a new approach to push back against scientific and educational research findings that are contrary to their political and business interests.
Ahead are discussions of how junk science was used by business and industry to reject, create doubt, and deny research findings that were contrary to their interests.
Silent Spring. In a blog post I wrote five years ago, I referenced an article in the local paper that a U.S. Senator had evoked the phrase “junk science” when explaining why Rachel Carson’s work should not be considered for an award in the U.S. Senate. He was speaking specifically about her work entitled Silent Spring, which used scientific findings to raise questions about the widespread use of pesticides.
This U.S. Senator referred to the science in Carson’s work as “junk science.” And this senator has a background in medicine. In the history of science, Rachel Carson is perhaps one of the first scientists to have her work derided by an industry that realized that her scholarship would affect their bottom line, and to fight these findings, they choose to label Carson as a quack, an over zealous government worker, and whose ideas were not accepted by mainstream science.
We all now know that Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book, Silent Spring wrote the book (with fierce opposition from the pesticide industry) to tell the public the fact (according to Carson) that pesticides were destroying wildlife and endangering the environment. At the time, the pesticide industry drummed up contrary opinion, and tried to claim that Carson’s science was flawed, and there was really no scientific evidence supporting her claims. President Kennedy appointed a committee of experts to look into Carson’s claims, and when all was said and done, the committee agreed with all of her science and her conclusions.
But to this day, the junk science advocates claim that Carson’s suggestion that pesticides should be banned resulted in the deaths of millions from malaria. What they don’t tell you is Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on the entire ecosystem. In fact, she concludes her section on DDT in Silent Spring not by urging a total ban, but with practical advice such as “Spray as little as you possibly can” and not “Spray to the limit of your capacity.”
Big Tobacco. The term “sound science” was first used by the tobacco industry to try to discredit research that had shown that secondhand smoke endangered nonsmokers. They did this by using public relations to claim that the research upon which the claim was made (secondhand smoke endangers nonsmokers) was “junk science,” and that any decisions that health officials should make should be based on “sound science.” Now lets turn our attention to smoking and cancer, and see how the terms junk science and sound science were used to discredit the results of research investigations into the relationship between smoking, second-hand smoke, and cancer.
Let’s start with this question: The U.S. Tobacco Institute was founded by which of these organizations?
- The University of North Carolina
- The U.S. Department of Health
- Tobacco Growers Union
- The Tobacco Industry
The answer is number 4, the Tobacco Industry, which as Philip Mirowski explains, became the industry “think tank” that mounted campaigns denying the growing body of scientific knowledge that smoking was linked to cancer. To fight against science, the U.S. Tobacco Institute realized that debating science was a more efficient way to defend the tobacco industry.
Their strategy, according to Mirowski, was to find “legitimate” scientific spokespersons to orate the industry side, create doubt in scientific findings related to smoking and health, and thereby create “controversy” where it really shouldn’t exist. The work of these organizations, whether a think tank, a subdivision of a corporation, or a web site portal, is essentially to cast doubt on existing knowledge that does not fit with their political, economic, or educational philosophy. Junkies are deniers of scientific evidence, even when there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence against their views. Elisa Ong, MD, and Stanton Glantz, PhD, reported this in their article Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms in the American Journal of Public Health:
The tobacco industry has attacked “junk science” to discredit the evidence that secondhand smoke—among other environmental toxins—causes disease. Philip Morris used public relations firms and lawyers to develop a “sound science” program in the United States and Europe that involved recruiting other industries and issues to obscure the tobacco industry’s role. The European “sound science” plans included a version of “good epidemiological practices” that would make it impossible to conclude that secondhand smoke—and thus other environmental toxins—caused diseases.
Junk science morphed into what is known as sound science. Right-wing talking heads, and politicians love to end their orations about why they do not agree with current scientific findings by invoking the phase, “Look there are questions about these findings. Some real scientists don’t agree with these findings. We need sound science on this issue. The science is simply not settled here.” You’ll find out that this is exactly the kind of thinking that some education think tanks use when they deny the research, such as in teacher preparation.
Global Warming. Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and are supported by the scientific community.
Junk science has been evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.
Think Tanks and Junk Science
During last thirty years of the 20th Century, the emergence of think tanks was a consequence of business and industry pushing back against research findings. Think tanks have become the way that neoliberal groups have created controversy, and pushed the body of science out into the public and the media, and let ideas compete in the market.
Philip Mirowski in his book Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, explains that at first the practice started small, but again under the model of the neoliberal thought collective, whole rafts of think tanks, “institutes,” and labs were founded to carry out various components of the program. He writes:
By the 1970s these structures, in conjunction with a few smaller centers founded within universities, began to form a parallel scientific universe, a whole mirror world of white papers and dubious fact sheets and counterfeit journal publications explicitly constructed to mimic academic scientific output while keeping the original funding and motivations obscure. While most observers have some awareness of think tanks devoted to social policy, almost no one has noticed that neoliberals have also developed a phalanx of think tanks to produce the kinds of natural science that they felt were warranted by their pecuniary and epistemic interests. This is the apotheosis of the belief in the marketplace of ideas. Philip Mirowski. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (Kindle Locations 4212-4216). Kindle Edition.
The organizations identified in Figure 1 are just six think tanks that practice dubious science, but because of their deep pockets, they are able to influence the public to their point of view by collaborating with the media to get their ideas out there, but to insist that their views are the “alternative view” that should be warranted in the “market place of ideas.” These organizations are purveyors of junk science, but because of their status, they are influencing policy in the realms of science and education.
|Organization||Advocacy Field||Established||Function||Junk Science|
|Association for Sound Science Center||Environmental Protection Agency||1993 by Philip Morris and APCO||Question EPA report on second-hand smoke; question research on global warming||Create “credible sources” so reporters could question validity of scientific studies; question notion of peer-reviewed journals, sold news articles to do this. Sound science replaced junk science.|
|Heatland Institute||Free markets||1984||Question science of human caused climate change||Climate change skeptics|
|Tobacco Institute||Tobacco||1958 – 1998 Dissolved by U.S. Government Settlement Agreement||Good news about tobacco, attack scientific studies by casting doubt on them||Writing white papers rebutting research critical of tobacco smoking|
|Discovery Institute||Intelligent design||1990 by Hudson Institute a conservative think tank||Wedge strategy, intelligent design in schools||Intelligent design as science|
|National Council for Teacher Quality||Teacher preparation||2000||Overhaul teacher preparation in the U.S.||Denial of research on teacher education, rank teacher preparation institutions|
|Thomas Fordham Institute||K-12 schooling||2007||Offer conservative views on education||Evaluations of science standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards|
Figure 1. Neoliberal Think Tanks
Junk Teacher Preparation Research
The major purveyors casting doubt on teacher preparation analogous to tobacco’s U.S. Tobacco Institute are The Thomas Fordham Institute and the National Council of Teacher Quality. These two organizations, more than any other in the U.S. have waged a war against traditional teacher preparation by writing reports which use very weak to questionable research designs, convincing the media that teacher preparation is worthless, and then claiming that teacher preparation programs should be replaced with programs that put unlicensed and inexperienced teachers in classrooms, especially in the nation’s poorer neighborhoods.
These two organization work together casting doubt not only on teacher preparation, but K-12 education. They use the mantra that American education is failing, and the major reason for this their belief that teacher preparation is flawed. Their positions are more political rhetoric and lack any substantive research to back up their claims. Their aversion to the rich body of educational research is not surprising, and by doing so enables them to perpetuate a “junk science” view of teacher education. Their views on teacher preparation are just as sinister as the U.S. Tobacco Institute’s refutation of any link between smoking and cancer. To the Fordham Institute and the NCTQ, professors of education have used academic freedom as a cover to make teacher preparation formative (enabling students to generate their own ideas about teaching and learning) rather than training prospective teachers. To them teacher preparation is all about “training.”
Because these organizations have an abhorrence for educational research, they cherry pick studies they find in the literature to support their warped views of teaching, and then through their amicable relationship with the media, pull the wool over journalist’s eyes, who simply resort to common sense, and in the end, agree with the Fordham Institute and the NCTQ. The U.S. Tobacco Institute used similar tactics. In the end, tobacco’s attempt to cast doubt on and try to convince the public that the science linking smoking and cancer was “not settled”, was decided in the court.
For teacher preparation, these two organizations are casting great doubt on the work of American universities and institutions preparing teachers. There is a link between high quality teacher preparation and the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. There is also a link between high quality teacher preparation and attitudes that graduates of these programs have about their preparation and their ability to teach. Fordham and the NCTQ know that their main “product” in their reports and press releases is “doubt.” They have created a controversy about the quality of teaching in American schools, as well as the quality of teacher preparation. Their reports are essentially critical of academic learning in American schools, and the way teachers are prepared. Their reports are circulated among similar think tanks, but because of their liaisons with the media, their papers are quoted and often accepted as the truth about education.
The NCTQ has a coy relationship with US News and World Report (which publishes questionable college rankings) by co-publishing the ratings of 1,200 undergraduate and graduate teacher preparation programs. These organization function very much like the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), which was founded in 1993 to educate the public about the dangers of “junk science. ” TASSC was created by Phillip Morris, and as Mirowski points out, the close ties of the sound science movement to the tobacco industry led to transmitting tobacco controversies to other controversies (such as the quality of K-12 education, and the quality of U.S. teacher preparation.) Mirowski explains that TASSC was one of the earlier of “whole rafts of think tanks, “institutes,” and labs founded to carry out political and self-interest projects. Mirowski writes:
By the 1970s these structures, in conjunction with a few smaller centers founded within universities, began to form a parallel scientific universe, a whole mirror world of white papers and dubious fact sheets and counterfeit journal publications explicitly constructed to mimic academic scientific output while keeping the original funding and motivations obscure. While most observers have some awareness of think tanks devoted to social policy, almost no one has noticed that neoliberals have also developed a phalanx of think tanks to produce the kinds of natural science that they felt were warranted by their pecuniary and epistemic interests. This is the apotheosis of the belief in the marketplace of ideas.
There are more organizations in education that are no different from those identified by Mirowski, but in this post, the prominent organizations are Fordham and the NCTQ. A term that is important to introduce here is the idea of “alternative science.” Alternative science comes into play when science is brought into the courtroom, or discussed in the press or on TV. Using equal time or fairness in reporting, the alternative view is given equal time with the scientific view.
In teacher preparation, a similar term arose in the past thirty years, “alternative certification or alternative teacher preparation.” One of the goals of the NCTQ is to replace traditional teacher education program with alternative programs such as Teach For America (TFA). As I’ve reported on this blog, TFA does not prepare teachers who are more effective than teachers coming out of traditional university programs. Not only is the study of traditional teacher prep inept, but there is no discussion in the NCTQ report on alternative programs, nor any rating of TFA.
Is the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep Junk Science?
The NCTQ report on teacher prep is not a valid study of teacher preparation. In a study of junk science in the media, Michael Carolan (2011) survey all articles written between 1995 – 2005 that contained the words junk science in the title. In his research, he identified 11 definitions of junk science. According to Carolan, his study helps illuminate the difference between science and non science, which is refers to “boundary work.” Figure 2 is an analysis of the NCTQ report on teacher prep. I’ve listed Carolan’s 11 definitions, and then using a simple binary system, evaluated the NCTQ report on the criteria, and made comments about each definition, especially explaining why the NCTQ report is junk science.
|Junk Science Definitions||Junk Science?||Score||Comments|
|Bad policy based upon||Yes||1||Assumes American education is declining; Believes the marketplace is the engine for change|
|Experts with agendas||Yes||1||Assume that one of causes of America’s decline is teacher preparation institutions. NCTQ wants teacher education to be a training ground not an environment of learning|
|False data||No||0||Data reported are ratings, which are dubious. We could rate this “yes”|
|No data or unsubstantiated claims||Yes||1||Data unclear; claim teacher education is “chaotic” with no data;|
|Failure to cite references||Yes||1||No review of the literature; cherry picked three references;|
|Using non-certified experts||Yes||1||There is no evidence that experts in the field of teacher education participated|
|Poor methodology||Yes||1||Data was limited to college bulletins and syllabi. Very few syllabi received to make decisions.|
|Too much uncertainty to arrive at conclusions drawn||Yes||1||Universities did not cooperate thus creating great uncertainty in any information gathered by NCTQ|
|Revealing only that data which supports findings||Yes||1||The data is in the form of ratings|
|Non-peer reviewed claims||Yes||1||Not subjected to review by experts in the field of teacher education|
|Totals||10 yes; 1 no||10||The NCTQ report on Teacher Prep scored 10 on a scale of 0 -11. The report is clearly junk science|
Figure 2. An Analysis of the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep using established definitions of junk science. The NCTQ scored 10 out of 11 indicating that it a highly rated junk science study. Definitions from Carolan, M.S., When Does Science Become Junk?
The NCTQ is a neoliberal organization whose goal is to dismantle teacher preparation as it is practiced in American universities today. Using a consumer and market place approach, the NCTQ organization doesn’t fulfil the words in its title, “teacher quality.” If you read the conclusion (just 2 pages) of the NCTQ report you will see that their conclusions have nothing to do with the junk science study they reported.
What is your take on the NCTQ report on Teacher Prep?