Authority and Influence in Academia

There’s a recent AP story showing that ‘school spending by the affluent is widening the wealth gap,’ As others have pointed out, however, the real problem is not that inequality allows some parents to spend a lot more on their kids than others (that is a problem, but not the big one) – the big one is that school funding itself is very unequal. It’s an old story, Kozol wrote Savage Inqualities decades ago, and Berliner and Biddle have written about it  – there are many studies, and expert testimony and reports done for funding lawsuits such as Williams vs. California.

Things are probably just getting worse, and in our supposed ‘recovery’ the states are still spending less.  The result is a reinforcement of the advantages already enjoyed by children in wealthy families.

I mention these thing because the “Ohio Education Research Center,” housed in the John Glenn School at Ohio State, but with faculty from the Educational Studies department ( among others), recently hosted its annual conference, and for its keynote invited Eric Hanushek.

Ohio Education Research Center Fall Conference

The Ohio Education Research Center is holding its 3rd Annual Conference, “Using Data to Inform Policy, Practice, and Teacher Success,” on Wednesday (10/1) from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Eric Hanushek, Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow, Stanford University will deliver the keynote address.


It’s an interesting choice for several reasons. Hanushek works at the Hoover Institute, a right-wing think tank, and has made a name for himself over the years for expert testimony in school funding cases, in which he invariably argues that funding makes no difference, that class size makes no difference, that teacher tenure and unions are a problem, and that firing bad teachers would be one solution.   There is, of course, a lot written showing the importance of funding, and as the judge in one case where Hanushek testified diplomatically pointed out only a foold would fine that money does not matter in education” (in Adler, 2010, 107). The economist Moshe Adler provides a nice characterization of Hunushek’s favored methods – meta-analysis — in the case of class. Adler is using the critique of the economist Alan Kreuger from Princeton.


Instead of counting studies, Hanushek counted estimates within studies. Hanushek reviewed 59 studies and extracted from them 277 estimates. The number of estimates in a study varied widely. Two studies included 24 estimates each, and both studies, by the same authors, were based on the same data. Other studies provided only one estimate. As Krueger explains, Hanushek’s method of counting estimates instead of studies is misleading. There is no reason to assign a greater weight to a study just because it has more estimates. . . . Krueger and Whitmore discovered that if studies were counted instead of estimates, the ratio between those that find class size does matter versus that find that it does not is actually four to one. (Adler, 2010, pp. 104-105).


The evidence on class size effects is complex: If you shrink classes and fill them with unqualified TFA teachers in schools without resources you’re not likely to be doing the kids any favors; but Hanushek’s methods as described above are problematic to say the least (though he does defend them) – and of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, and why.


More recently, Hanushek was one of only two witnesses called by the plaintiffs in the Vergara trail that ended teacher tenure in California. As described in the LA School Report:

Hanushek spent most of his time on the stand defending his belief that using value-added measures of teachers is critical for evaluating their effectiveness and supporting a recent Stanford report that showed LA Unified charter schools did a better job educating students than traditional district schools.

While plaintiffs attorney Marcellus McRae steered clear of asking about an even more recent Stanford report, a survey of all California charters that showed they performed about the same as regular public schools, a lawyer for the unions, Peder Thoreen, went right at it, only to be swatted back by objections because Hanushek said he had been out of the country when the report was released, and he was not entirely familiar with it.

That struck some of the lawyers as a bit disengenuous in that Hanushek’s wife, Macke Raymond, wrote both reports.

“It is a pretty outrageous statement given that it was written by his wife,” Jonathan Weisglass, a lawyer for the defense, said during an afternoon recess. “And it, in fact, says that for the entire state of California, that the performance of charter schools is equal to or worse than traditional public schools. It’s far less favorable to charter schools than the LA study. So it’s really kind of odd and surprising that he was only familiar with that one.”

Mainstream education writers regularly point out such flaws and conflicts of interest, but none of this damages Hanushek’s credibility (on value-added measures of teaching, see e.g., He and colleague Paul Peterson (who famously once described himself as a “Jedi attacker” for vouchers) are much in demand by the corporate right (see them team up together on Wall Street Journal video) — and they get invited to keynote things like the “Ohio Education Research Center”


But it’s important to realize that one reason none of this counts against them is that what Hanushek does with data is not unusual for economists. Diesing (1985) showed long ago that the neoliberal ‘Nobel Prize’ winner (and father of school vouchers) Milton Friedman played loose with data: Friedman’s practice was to present his theory as the only one plausible, and then constantly adjusts and interprets the evidence to fit that theory:


  1. If raw or adjusted data are consistent with [the theory] he reports them as confirmation. . . .

  2. If the fit with expectations is moderate; he exaggerates the fit . . .

  3. If particular data points or groups of points differ from the predicted regression, he invents ad hoc explanations for the divergence . . .

  4. If a whole set of data disagree with predictions, adjust them until they do agree . . .

  5. If no plausible adjustment suggests itself, reject the data as unreliable . . .

  6. If data adjustment or rejection are not feasible, express puzzlement (pp. 65-66).


Mirowski (2013) in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste gives some context for this:


Orthodox economists tend to see nothing wrong with conflicts of interest, since they have generally subscribed to the precept that market arrangements are capable in principle of monitoring, restricting, and resolving any such conflicts in the course of normal operations.   . . .This has the curious implication that, whenever the economic orthodoxy has written about the “problem of corruption,” it parsed the problem as besetting only those individuals working in the public sector. Since everyone else employed in the private marketplace is known to be motivated by private gain, and the market turns that into public welfare, then by definition, there are no conflicts of interest in the private sector, only lax imposition of contractual protects. . . . Gary Becker [another neoliberal ‘Nobel Prize’ winner] boiled this down to a pity epigram in his Business Week column: “if we abolish the state, we abolish corruption” (p. 220)


In other words, the best way to avoid corruption is by selling your opinions to the highest bidder (that is, since no one really ‘bids,’ to those who pay best). This may be unfair to economists – some of whom really believe what they say – but that’s the implication:

In the neoliberal playbook, intellectuals are inherently shady characters precisely because they sell their pens-for-hire to private interests: that is their inescapable lot in life as participants in the marketplace of ideas. It is the market as superior information processor that ultimately sorts out what the masses should deem as truth, at least in the fullness of time. This constitutes the gist of the Robert Barro position [another neoliberal economist from the same team as Hanushek, Becker, and Friedman] that, as long as they keep paying us, we must be right. (Mirowski, 2013, p. 224).


We seem to be doing our part here at OSU – it’d be interesting to know how much Hanushek made for his keynote.

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