NEPC Announces Winners of the 2012 Bunkum Awards

Friedman Foundation, Public Agenda, Brookings Institution and Center for the American Experiment Honored for their Bunk


February is the time for awards that recognize achievements of the past year. In that spirit, sandwiched between the Grammys and the Oscars, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) has announced the winners of its 2012 Bunkum Awards for truly dreadful educational research.


Below are summaries of this year’s winners (or losers), along with links to the Bunkum awards video and links to the original reviews of the Bunkum-worthy reports.


The “Three’s a Harm” Award goes to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice’s report The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools. This think tank is a past Bunkum winner, and this time it has truly outdone itself.

The School Staffing Surge hits the Bunkum trifecta with its inaccurate information, erroneous reasoning, and sheer audacity. According to the report, public school test scores and dropout numbers did not improve between 1992 and 2009, notwithstanding a doubling of school staffing. NEPC’s reviewer refutes these claims and actually point to a clear improvement in scores for all student subgroups, particularly students of color and younger students. Moreover, graduation rates increased, helping to raise college attendance to historic highs.

Based on its flawed research, the report makes unsupported recommendations; it calls for cuts in administrative and teaching staff, for increased school choice, and for class size increases. Yet as the reviewer points out, U.S. public school classes are already larger than those in the private schools the Friedman Foundation touts. “Smaller class sizes are apparently only bad and wasteful when they are in public schools,” said Kevin Welner, director of NEPC.

But the chutzpah doesn’t stop there. The report then sets forth its recommendations, including the obligatory call for increased school choice – which has little if anything to do with the report’s data.

Read the review at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-school-staffing.


The “Trust Us, There’s a Pro-Voucher Result Hiding in Here Somewhere” Award is given to Matthew M. Chingos, Paul E. Peterson and The Brookings Institution. Their report, The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City, searches far and wide for any possible evidence of the benefits of school vouchers.

This report’s raison d’être was to make the case that an old (now expired) New York City voucher policy, providing $1,400 per year for up to three years to subsidize attendance at private elementary schools, made a positive impact. Although the authors generally came up empty and had to acknowledge that the vouchers had a “tiny insignificant impact,” they then went on to trumpet a cherry-picked result from one type of result for one subgroup: college attendance of African Americans.

In truth, contrary to the claims that vouchers had a positive effect on college attendance of African Americans, there were no statistical differences between ethnic groups. The data do suggest the possibility that the vouchers had a differential and positive impact for African Americans. But that’s not at all how the researchers presented their results.

“Had Chingos and Peterson framed the finding from African Americans as an encouraging exploratory hypothesis deserving of further testing, I would not have been alarmed by the report,” explained the NEPC reviewer. “But the study’s results absolutely do not merit headlines such as ‘Vouchers promote college attendance for African Americans.’”

Learn more at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-vouchers-college.


The “Noblesse Oblige” Award is presented to Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, Michael Remaley and Jeremiah Hess and the Public Agenda Foundation for What’s Trust Got to Do With It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools.

It’s not an easy thing to convince people to do things against their common sense and best interests. But Public Agenda stepped up to the plate with this report providing strategies for just that: how to “engage” with members of communities and convince them to go along with externally imposed so-called “turnarounds” of their schools.

The report presents parents as ignorant about their community schools’ deficiencies and as obstacles to outsiders’ turnaround efforts, which often include massive teacher layoffs and school closings or privatization.

“The report completely ignores the evidence warning policymakers that so-called turnaround strategies don’t actually work to benefit communities,” says NEPC director Welner.

Interestingly, in focus groups conducted by the researchers, community members accurately identify problems of inadequate resources, as well as significant hurdles faced by their impoverished communities. Further, as the report’s authors note, “There was also a strong sense among the parents we interviewed that, in their view, the communities themselves should be seen as sources of new thinking.” Unfortunately, the report never addresses these core problems and never suggests truly valuing local ideas.

What’s Trust Got to Do With It? is, therefore, ironically titled. The biggest problem is in the authors’ complete lack of trust in the views of the parents.

Read the review at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-whats-trust.


The “Scary Black Straw Man” Award goes to Katherine Kersten and the Center for the American Experiment for Our Immense Achievement Gap: Embracing Proven Remedies While Avoiding a Race-Based Recipe for Disaster.

Using apocalyptic language throughout her report, the author alludes to a “train wreck” and massive “liabilities” and a “race-based recipe for disaster” if state policymakers, in their zeal to pursue race-based school reform policies, continue colluding with advocates for desegregation, busing and school funding.

Our Immense Achievement Gap addresses reports by the Minnesota Department of Education and others on concentrated poverty and segregation. These reports suggest policies such as a continuation of existing pro-diversity efforts and the encouragement of voluntary fair housing and magnet school programs. The Center for the American Experiment’s counter-report does not address these seemingly sensible proposals and instead sets up straw men in the form of “busing” and mandated “de-segregation.” Neither of these policies was recommended by any of the targeted reports.

Curiously, despite being highly critical of desegregation and integration programs, the report provides a shoddy and unbalanced literature review to discredit these efforts.

“What brought tears of appreciation to our judges’ eyes was the lengthy, heart-rending and compassionate soliloquy about the need to rectify the injustice of the achievement gap – followed by an equally passionate rejection of initiatives sensibly designed to close it,” Welner said. “By raising obtuseness to the level of performance art, the Center for the American Experiment clearly merits this Bunkum.”

Find the review at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-immense-achievement-gap.


The word Bunkum comes from Buncombe County in North Carolina. Buncombe County produced a Congressman, Representative Felix Walker, who gained infamy back in 1820 for delivering a particularly meaningless, irrelevant and seemingly endless speech. Thus, bunkum became a term for long-winded nonsense of the kind often seen in politics, and today in education. Watch the 2012 Bunkum Awards video at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/think-tank/bunkum-awards/2012.

The National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, unites a diverse group of interdisciplinary scholars from across the United States. The Center is guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. To watch the 2012 Bunkum Awards video and learn more about NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.



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