The un-empirical presidency
PRESIDENT BUSH’S love affair with the scientific community is awkward at best. The White House science advisor, John H. Marburger III, is on record as saying that “in this administration, science strongly informs policy.” But where’s the romance for scientists if Bush casts a blind eye over evidence of a human role in global warming or the difference between evolution and intelligent design?
Now the administration’s propensity to ignore empirical data threatens the search for effective school reforms. The latest case of science snubbed emerged last week and involves the quiet quashing of new findings on the success of bilingual teaching in the nation’s classrooms.
Californians understand how important such research is -- almost two-fifths of the state’s schoolchildren come from non-English speaking homes. And parents and employers everywhere want to know what advances children’s reading and language skills. Figuring that out was the charge given, along with 1 million in taxpayer dollars, to Bush’s prestigious National Literacy Panel, appointed three years ago.
Panelist Robert Slavin, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University, was asked to review the best-designed experiments, where children were randomly assigned to either bilingual or English-immersion classrooms. The administration, rightfully, wanted to test reforms with the same rigor with which it tests new drugs. Or so it said.
Slavin found that, according to the best data, children’s early literacy skills climbed at a faster rate in bilingual classrooms. He wanted to publish his findings immediately; the Education Department said to wait until the panel’s full report was done.
“From the perspective of academic freedom, I didn’t like the idea of something being held up,” Slavin said. He resigned from the panel.
Now the panel’s report is finished. Another of its members extended Slavin’s research, with the same results: Good bilingual education programs produce faster results than good English-only programs. These findings (and others -- for instance, that reading is best taught via basic skills, like phonics) have been peer-reviewed, but Bush’s Education Department won’t make the report public.
“They said they weren’t going to release it,” the panel chairman, University of Illinois psychologist Timothy Shanahan, told me last week.
Kathleen Leos, who heads the Office of English Language Acquisition in the Education Department, denies the report is being deep-sixed. “We are in negotiations, it’s just not ready,” she said. But another panel member, David Francis of the University of Houston, said the negotiations are over getting the government to relinquish copyright, so that the findings may be published independently.
Why would the administration sideline its own report? It’s possible that the bilingual education results weren’t what it wanted to hear. “English only” is a rallying cry in the culture wars, and evidence that works against it also works against such Bush allies as English First, which has lead the charge against bilingual education.
And this wouldn’t be the first time the administration has buried inconvenient education data. It was not until the New York Times brought suit and forced the release of a charter school study that we learned that such schools -- which are mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act in some cases -- do no better on average than public schools.
And Republicans aren’t alone in this game. In 2000, Clinton administration officials tried to recast research I led, which found that many toddlers were entering unhealthy child-care settings in the wake of its welfare reforms.
Scientific evidence alone shouldn’t make or break public policy. But as conservative John Locke argued in the 18th century, government must advance objective knowledge so that citizens can reason through remedies to their shared problems. When the government invests in legitimate research, we should not be prevented from hearing the results.