Against Federally Funded Education Research Centers

One of the chapters in my new book, The Malfunction of US Education Policy, relates my experience with a research center focused on educational standards and testing—for decades, the only federally funded research center on the topic. That experience was not good.

Long story short, it grossly misrepresented a study I managed that had been, ironically, funded by a federal agency. In addition, I was told that I could not attend a conference where my study was first misrepresented to the public, and an erratum promised for publication in the center newsletter never appeared. Misrepresentations continued for two decades and can still be found in several of the research center’s publications, available for free download online, paid for with your tax dollars and mine, and in journal publications of the center’s principals.

Because I cannot read minds, I cannot know the motivations of the research center directors, but two coincidences may provide clues. First, they were conducting their own (much smaller) project on the same topic—the costs of educational testing—at about the same time and may have viewed mine as competition for the attention they sought for theirs. Second, they apparently did not like my study’s results.

Evidence for the latter arose a decade later with a report from an amply funded study at a partner organization on the same topic. The authors’ estimates were, in their own words, “about six times higher” than previous estimates. I dissect their estimation methods starting on page 21 here.

As the research center was government funded, naturally there must have been some process available where I could lodge my complaint. That process started with the US Education Department’s official contact for the research center contract, the contract overseer, as it were. I made that contact, and was told he could do nothing, as he had no responsibility for “editorial” decisions made by the center.

In other words, research center members could say whatever they pleased about their and others’ work. Though the center was federally funded, its oversight, at least at that time, was no better than that typically found at academic journals, where whatever passes the cursory review of two unpaid volunteers enters the scholarly record. Once there, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to extract.

Given its heavy-handed use of taxpayer-funded privileges, the research center likely made enemies other than myself. But one will find few public complaints. The center built a relatively enormous base of power and influence. Not only was it the only federally funded research center on the topic for over two decades, receiving many millions to pursue its own “editorial” desires, but it could also decide who else benefitted from taxpayer largesse. Crossing it could mean no access to that purse, as well as slights or misrepresentations of one’s research in its widely distributed writings.

[Related: “Have the Gates Foundation and Its Allies Purchased US Education Journalism?”]

Over time, the research center’s directors and affiliates grew more comfortable with their power. Citations and other acknowledgements of most scholarly work conducted outside their group were, at best, ignored and, remarkably often, declared not to exist (as in, “there is no previous research on … ”). The proportion of citations to their own work steadily increased in their articles and reports until some contained only citations to themselves.

Some events of which I write occurred years ago, so why bring them up now? Because the problem persists and may be getting worse. Federally funded education research centers retain too much arbitrary power, with too little oversight and too little recourse for those who may disagree.

One currently funded center, for example, from its start hoarded references and citations for its own. Peruse its publications, and the names of center members and close colleagues appear again and again and again. Others’ research is either ignored or declared not to exist.

A few years ago, the center asked itself, “How much should we rely on student test achievement as a measure of success?” Its publication attempts to answer the question by summarizing dozens of scholars’ writings on the topic. Not one of the scholars cited, however, had any training or experience in developing, administering, or processing tests. All of them were center members or colleagues with long-established professional links.

The US Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences currently promotes the establishment of more dedicated topical research centers.1 In a recent podcast interview, IES Director Mark Schneider explains why he favors funding research “teams.” His argument makes perfect sense … or it would in a perfect world with perfect people.

I favor abolishing federal topical education research centers. But, if we must have them, at least there should be empowered, independent oversight of their self-dealing. Moreover, we need a clearly marked, well-paved avenue for complaints.

PubPeer is one of the more effective checks on scholarly overreach available. It not only provides a means for identifying errors in scholarly articles but also offers a venue where scholars whose work has been unfairly maligned can respond. All federal research centers should join it.

1 I employ the word “topical” to distinguish this type of education research center from those that are consultative, such as the regional laboratories. The regional labs operate very differently and are not guilty of the behaviors described here.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Richard P. Phelps

    Richard P Phelps wrote The Malfunction of US Education Policy: Elite Misinformation, Disinformation, and Selfishness (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023) and edited Correcting Fallacies about Educational and Psychological Testing (American Psychological Association, 2008).

One thought on “Against Federally Funded Education Research Centers”

  1. I’m glad to see more people speaking out against federally funded education research centers. These centers are nothing but a waste of taxpayer money and should be shut down immediately.

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