Why is most education research so useless? Conflict of interest

Every time I read an article about public school, I assume I’ll run into research from people who have a conflict of interest. Here are three studies that made me nuts this week.

The Boston Globe: Untapped potential of valedictorians

Valedictorians at low-income schools stay low income. That’s what the study says. It’s mind-blowing, really. We’ve known for more than 20 years that the tax base of your high school determines your income when you graduate.

Moreover, Mark Zuckerberg just dumped seemingly infinite money into Newark, NJ, schools accidentally proving what we already knew: not even more funding can create class mobility for kids with low-income parents.

This was a cover story for the Globe. Which signals to the city that it is shocking that poor kids grow up to be poor. Then we can pretend there are ways to solve this problem with school. What if the Globe ran a story that said, “We already knew the valedictorians would be poor. Everyone knows public schools have created a caste system in the US.”

The Globe doesn’t say that because it would be really hard to say we need to completely overhaul our social service system—which is what public school is. Any suggestions for action would offend most of their subscribers.

Georgetown University: Better to be born rich than born smart

This research shows that by the time a kid is in preschool, the disparities between rich and poor are too big for school to overcome.

To give you an idea about how much we did not need more research on this topic, the Ford Foundation has already run through multiple cycles of funding to overcome the problem that by age four poor kids are at a disadvantage for learning a musical instrument.

That’s right. We have so much data about how ineffective schools are at educating poor kids that we are now studying minutiae like learning to play the violin.

So why did Georgetown do a new study on this very old topic? Because Georgetown has funding to figure out why students are totally unprepared for the workforce.

The answer, of course, is that there is no correlation between doing well in school and doing well at work. The correlation is between having a lot of money and making a lot of money. But a university can’t use their funding to do a study that says that school is a terrible way to prepare for work.

Ball State University: Recess before lunch has many benefits for students

Here’s a good rule of thumb when reading studies. The more insanely obvious a title is, the more certain you can be that the data does not even support the insanely obvious and the paper should never have been published.

This study says the most common benefits of recess before lunch are “increased consumption of lunch, improved behavior in the cafeteria, and an increased focus on consuming lunch.” I read all three of those benefits as the same benefit: kids finish their lunch before lunch is over.

Maybe we should forget about the timing of recess and just get good food. School lunch in France looks like dinner at a restaurant in Brooklyn. And school lunch in Finland looks just as good.

Maybe we could notice the pattern: other countries have good food at school.

The real finding of the recess/lunch study is that kids have a better focus on whatever they are doing after they go outside for exercise. We already know this, of course. If you put math after recess kids will focus better on math. Similarly, if kids have lunch then recess then social studies, then kids will focus less on lunch and more on social studies.

This study was funded by the School Nutrition Association. Which needs school in order to maintain their influence. So they cannot risk a conclusion that says kids can’t focus when they sit in classrooms all day. That would mean the end of school as we know it.

Instead, the paper says there are benefits to moving recess. And the government continues to fund these researchers because no amount of money will fix public schools, but money makes researchers feel like they have meaningful careers and things will be fine. For them.

6 replies
  1. Lize
    Lize says:

    If you are so triggered by the research, what stops you from creating a Kickstarter fund to sponsor researchers to research what you deem necessary?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think we have all the research we need. We have an incredible amount of data on what works in education. We have tons of research that shows school isn’t necessary and it doesn’t promote economic mobility or self-reliance. We also have an enormous amount of data that shows what works in social services.

      So we should take all the money from schools and put it toward social services. The middle class would be on their own for educating their kids. Families would have to have only one person working. And everyone’s investment in expensive houses because of the school would be wasted.
      Teachers would be out of work
      Education departments in universities would be out of work
      Textbook publishers would be out of work
      All companies that sell to schools would go bankrupt

      But that list of people who would lose out is also the list of people who promote schools as a solution to social ills not based on research but based on their self-interest.


      • Craig
        Craig says:

        I bet a further consequence would be that birthrates in the developed world would plummet even faster.

        Let’s summarize PT’s life advice:
        1. You must have kids (or else your life is meaningless) – https://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2017/04/07/is-it-okay-if-i-dont-want-kids/
        2. Have the kids early (before age 35) – https://mailbag.penelopetrunk.com/2019/04/29/you-post-about-reporting-harassment-is-offensive/
        3. Fathers must be the sole breadwinner – https://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2016/02/17/open-letter-to-the-guy-who-refuses-to-be-the-sole-breadwinner/
        4. Home school your kids until adulthood

        If this was presented to me (as a GenX man) as my life plan before I turned 35, my response would have been a “hard pass”. I doubt I am alone in this sentiment. I think the fact that those of us in the developed world now have more lifestyle choices is responsible for the worldwide decline in birth rates. PT’s advice regarding marriage and children in this era seems very retrograde. I’m reminded of a National Review blog post from over 10 years ago, before John Derbyshire went completely crazy:


        “…modernity and child-raising are a really poor mix, is surely true. Raising children is not much fun much of the time. It never was, of course, but our ancestors did not feel as entitled to fun as we do, and of course lacked reliable birth control methods.

        My generation was I think the last in the Western world not to be consciously ‘raised’ at all. Our parents – not just my parents, ours, everybody’s – shoved us out of the house on every possible occasion. People who could afford to, hired other adults to raise their kids for them. The ancient paleolithic formula of keeping a child by the mother till weaned, then dumping him into the tribal peer group, still held. Then this guy [Benjamin Spock] showed up and everything went to hell.

        The endless attentions we are supposed to lavish on our kids nowadays simply go against the grain of human nature. If you’re a parent, come on, admit it: There have been times, haven’t there, when, after some particularly difficult struggle with a child, you and your spouse have sat staring at each other gloomily across the kitchen table, till one of you says: ‘Isn’t this supposed to be rewarding? Pah!’”

        • Virginia
          Virginia says:

          Have fun being a man, but the thing is, young women need to hear this retrograde, counterculture advice so they can make more considered choices about whether to sacrificetheir fertile years on the altar of career advancement.

  2. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    I agree with what you’re saying about improving social services in this country and I believe that’s why even public schools in the countries that have better social services are better than public schools in the U.S. A lot of public school children in the U.S. are living precarious existences that with better social services might not be so on the edge. When certain basic needs are being taken care of, of course it’s much easier to do better in school. All these research studies trying to find ways to make U.S. schools more competitive globally are not addressing what really needs to be done. They are trying to figure out all sorts of ways to improve schools without having to improve or change social services.

  3. aquinas heard
    aquinas heard says:

    The most important statement in this post: “because no amount of money will fix public schools”.

    This is the aspect that parents don’t get or want to see. Statistically, almost no parent understands this. However, it’s imperative to remember, we have public schools because parents (American adults) think education is a right.

    Unschoolers are generally supportive of freedom for their children. Public schools rest on force. Forced funding via taxation. Forced attendance due to compulsory attendance laws. Forced curriculum by whoever is currently in power – state school department and school superintendent (sometimes in conjunction with teacher’s unions – forced dues participation). If you actually understand how children learn, it should be very clear that public schools are harmful obstacles to this.

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