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Spin Cycle

Spin Cycle: How Research Gets Used in Policy Debates--The Case of Charter Schools

Jeffrey R. Henig
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Spin Cycle
    Book Description:

    One important aim of social science research is to provide unbiased information that can help guide public policies. However, social science is often construed as politics by other means. Nowhere is the polarized nature of social science research more visible than in the heated debate over charter schools. In Spin Cycle, noted political scientist and education expert Jeffrey Henig explores how controversies over the charter school movement illustrate the use and misuse of research in policy debates. Henig’s compelling narrative reveals that, despite all of the political maneuvering on the public stage, research on school choice has gradually converged on a number of widely accepted findings. This quiet consensus shows how solid research can supersede partisan cleavages and sensationalized media headlines. In Spin Cycle, Henig draws on extensive interviews with researchers, journalists, and funding agencies on both sides of the debate, as well as data on federal and foundation grants and a close analysis of media coverage, to explore how social science research is “spun” in the public sphere. Henig looks at the consequences of a highly controversial New York Times article that cited evidence of poor test performance among charter school students. The front-page story, based on research findings released by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), sparked an explosive debate over the effectiveness of charter schools. In the ensuing drama, reputable scholars from both ends of the political spectrum launched charges and counter-charges over the research methodology and the implications of the data. Henig uses this political tug-of-war to illustrate broader problems relating to social science: of what relevance is supposedly non-partisan research when findings are wielded as political weapons on both sides of the debate? In the case of charter schools, Henig shows that despite the political posturing in public forums, many researchers have since revised their stances according to accumulating new evidence and have begun to find common ground. Over time, those who favored charter schools were willing to admit that in many instances charter schools are no better than traditional schools. And many who were initially alarmed by the potentially destructive consequences of school choice admitted that their fears were overblown. The core problem, Henig concludes, has less to do with research itself than with the way it is often sensationalized or misrepresented in public discourse. Despite considerable frustration over the politicization of research, until now there has been no systematic analysis of the problem. Spin Cycle provides an engaging narrative and instructive guide with far-reaching implications for the way research is presented to the public. Ultimately, Henig argues, we can do a better job of bringing research to bear on the task of social betterment.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-285-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Business, Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Chapter 1 The New York Times/AFT Charter School Controversy
    (pp. 1-14)

    August 17, 2004, was a warm day in Washington, D.C., the temperature in the eighties, the tail end of an unusually cool and wet summer, the time of year that political activists, public officials, and journalists sometimes refer to as the summer doldrums. For the rest of the year, most of the nation’s political and policy attention is focused on Washington. Lobbyists, advocacy groups, media outlets, and congressional staff wait poised and ready to respond to whispers and rumors that might signal shifts in partisan fortunes or be exploited for political gain. Washington was built on a swamp, however, and,...

  6. Chapter 2 Informed Democracy: An Ideal and Its Skeptics
    (pp. 15-32)

    The idea that wise governance should be guided by science has deep roots. Some would trace them to the founding of the nation. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others who set the country on its course were, by almost all accounts, wise statesmen who framed their deliberations about governing in terms of the best available knowledge of the physical and social worlds. One assessment goes so far as to characterize President Jefferson’s funding of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the northwest areas of the nation as perhaps “the first major federally supported social research” (Lynn 1978, 12)....

  7. Chapter 3 How Cool Research Gets in Hot Waters: Privatization, School Choice, and Charter Schools
    (pp. 33-55)

    Those who labor in the fields of social science and education research are accustomed to laboring in obscurity. The 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, held in San Francisco between April 7 and April 11, included 1,946 substantive panels, at which 8,361 scholars presented papers and 12,444 researchers—including coauthors—presented their findings.² One would think that such a volume of work would attract at least some attention in the national media. A search on Lexis/Nexis, however, returned only seven articles related to research presented at that meeting. Three were published in the same issue of the...

  8. Chapter 4 Research in the Public Eye: Personalization, Polarization, and Politicization
    (pp. 56-89)

    In 1991, when Minnesota put into place the nation’s first charter school law, charter schooling was a little more than a notion. The notion was that schools would perform better if held accountable for results than constrained by bureaucratic regulations about process. This simple notion quickly became attached to more a general theory, one with broader application and more politically potent ramifications. The theory was that markets, and specifically competitive pressure to win and hold consumers, would generate efficiencies, stimulate innovation, better engage families, and weed out nonperformers. It was the link between charter schools and the general theory of...

  9. Chapter 5 Research Outside the Spotlight: Accumulation, Convergence, Contingency
    (pp. 90-127)

    The public face of charter school research is not a pretty one. Advocates at each extreme wave studies to support their position and claim that their opponents are willfully perverting the canons of social science methodology to mislead the public and gain higher political ground. Researchers have been swept into the currents, or perhaps dived in headfirst. Those hoping for a more deliberate and thoughtful merger of science and democracy are faced with tough questions. Is their vision naïve at its core? Can there be a zone of objective investigation and technical expertise that is both protected from and able...

  10. Chapter 6 Follow the Money: The Role of Funding in the Politicization of Education Research
    (pp. 128-176)

    We have been wrestling with a puzzle. Research has been converging on an understanding of charter schools that provides a mixed, nuanced, and somewhat complicated picture; one that does not fit neatly into the simple narratives of the political right or political left. The public face of charter school research, however, is still marked by personalization, politicization, and polarization. The high stakes ideological and political battles discussed in chapter 3 help explain why partisans engage in hyperbolic, take-no-prisoners, brook-no-compromises tactics. Why and how, then, do researchers get drawn into this maelstrom?

    “Follow the money” is a somewhat cynical slogan, but...

  11. Chapter 7 How Research Reaches the Public Ear: Old Media and New
    (pp. 177-216)

    Other things were happening on August 16, 2004, the day before theNew York Timesran its front page story on the AFT charter school report. Here is a sampling of the stories theTimesran deeper in the paper on August 17. On page 10, it reported that an American journalist had been kidnapped, at gunpoint, in Iraq.¹ On page 14, it revealed that theTimeshad gotten access to an email in which a senior officer for the Central Intelligence Agency bitingly attacked the agency and the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks for “a failure to punish “bureaucratic...

  12. Chapter 8 Can the Ideal of Informed Democracy Be Revived?
    (pp. 217-245)

    Bad news and good news are intertwined in this story. The bad news is that the idealized vision of knowledge and democracy is once again shown to be naïve. The Progressives believed that expertise and democracy could be neatly apportioned, each to its own realm. Democracy—messy, emotional, symbol-laden, values-based—would be accorded the key roles of selecting leaders and setting broad priorities. Knowledge, and the research enterprise upon which it rests, would take over from there: experts would fashion policies and programs to maximize the democratically defined public good, oversee their implementation to ensure fidelity and efficiency, evaluate outputs...

  13. Appendix 1 List of Those Interviewed
    (pp. 246-247)
  14. Appendix 2 Diana Jean Schemo, “Charter Schools Trail in Results, U.S. Data Reveals,” New York Times (Late Edition, East Coast), August 17, 2004, p. A1
    (pp. 248-251)
  15. Appendix 3 “Charter School Evaluation Reported by The New York Times Fails to Meet Professional Standards”
    (pp. 252-254)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 255-272)
  17. References
    (pp. 273-286)
  18. Index
    (pp. 287-300)