Academic Theories Bad Basis for Public Policy

Last week, Time magazine published an article that described the pushback against teaching phonics in Oakland, California, public schools. Despite remarkable progress in reading skills among the district’s most disadvantaged students, teachers rebelled against teaching phonics. It was too old-fashioned; it wasn’t in keeping with the latest theories; it wasn’t “progressive” enough and didn’t focus on “social justice.“This is a perfect example of why public policy should not be based upon academic theories.One major problem is the “publish or perish” hamster wheel of tenure in academia that incentivizes young faculty to crank out articles, regardless of their substantive merit. There have been many embarrassing examples of how even peer-reviewed publication does not prove — or sometimes even evaluate — the merits of espoused theories. What’s more, there’s a penchant for novelty and controversy. (In other words, there’s little incentive for an academic in education to write an article that says, “Guess what? Phonics still works…”) Theories that garner attention generate responses; citations in later articles written by other academics are then used as proof of intellectual heft. But this, too, is often a shell game. Peter Boghossian, author and former professor at Portland State University, has written extensively about how the publication process actually “launders” cockamamie ideas, creating a false impression of intellectual seriousness. The situation becomes exponentially worse when these academic musings get picked up and pushed as policy. At that point, we’re tol …

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