The Biden administration’s creation of a “Disinformation Governance Board” in the Department of Homeland Security has been rightly denounced as a “Ministry of Truth” that will abuse government authority and resources to adjudicate what is and is not disinformation. What few people realize is that the federal government already has a Ministry of Truth governing school policy and practice. Located in the U.S. Department of Education, it operates under the innocuous-sounding name of the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC).
WWC’s mission sounds benign: to guide educators and policy-makers toward policies and practices that have undergone rigorous scientific evaluation and been proven to work. But, like any Ministry of Truth, no government committee can be trusted to rightly adjudicate disputes that are inherently political in nature. And, as the pandemic has laid bare, scientific controversies with policy implications are almost always political.
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Does research show that expanding school choice improves educational outcomes? WWC claims to know the correct answer, but in doing so it has to pick which studies meet its criteria, decide which outcomes are relevant, and properly interpret the results. All three steps involve human judgment that can be swayed by political factors.
For example, when my colleagues John Witte and Patrick Wolf found that the Milwaukee voucher program improved students’ standardized test results, WWC (wrongly) dismissed their results as failing to meet standards for scientific rigor. Specifically, WWC claimed that the study failed to establish that the matched samples of students being compared had similar test scores at baseline. They further claimed to know that because they emailed one of the authors (who happened to be out of the country on a sabbatical) and failed to receive a response.
If the WWC Truth Bureaucrats had bothered to read the study closely, they would have found that the information they needed to determine that the study met their criteria for scientific rigor was there. They also could have contacted another author or sent a follow-up email if they really wanted their questions answered. The Truth Committee tends to be sloppier and lazier when research results are politically undesirable.
In another instance, WWC gave a favorable rating to New Chance, a training and education program for low-income mothers. Yet, as the organization Straight Talk on Evidence notes, New Chance “was found in a large randomized controlled trial (RCT) to produce no significant positive effect on any important educational or life outcomes (e.g., reading proficiency, receipt of a high school diploma, employment, earnings, welfare receipt, childbearing, emotional well-being, children’s preschool readiness or behavior).”
To declare that New Chance “worked,” the WWC Truth Bureaucrats had to ignore all of those disappointing results and focus instead on the fact that mothers who received the training were more likely to complete a GED. Getting a credential such as a GED is meaningful only if it results in improved later-life outcomes. In the case of New Chance participants, it did not. The political pressure to deem government social-welfare programs effective can overcome sensible interpretations of the evidence.
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These examples are not isolated incidents. The National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) used freedom-of-information requests to obtain hundreds of WWC records documenting “the misinterpretation of study findings, inclusion of studies where programs were not fully implemented, exclusion of relevant studies from review, inappropriate inclusion of studies, concerns over WWC policies and procedures, incorrect information about a program developer and/or publisher, and the classification of programs.” NIFDI concluded that “over 80 percent of the requests for Quality Reviews involved concerns with misinterpretations of study findings.”
The drab Truth Bureaucrats at WWC may not have produced TikTok videos wherein they belt out politically charged or risqué show-tunes, but they do have a propensity to use government authority and resources to claim that science endorses whatever they politically prefer.
In the political world of policy debate, it is often a struggle to perceive what science does, and does not, tell us about what “works.” No government clearinghouse—especially one that purports to serve as a Ministry of Truth—relieves us of this burden.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review