When it comes to public education critics, the Fordham Institute deserves closer scrutiny

(Photo by Getty Images).

If we remember the Scriptural advice that there is no new thing under the sun, we also might realize there are two things under the sun which aren’t new but are very predictable.

Meet, yet again, Halley’s Comet and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

With the comet, we know when it will return and light up part of the Milky Way galaxy. And with Fordham, it exists to illuminate and promote a mysterious body called Charter World, a seeming black hole in that galaxy which thrives on milking public funds for very private purposes.   

But the great comet and the Fordham Institute are also different. We know when the comet will return, but with the two Fordham organizations — foundation and institute — they never leave us, as their representatives return again and again on the pages of newspapers and in other forums, creating predictable school privatization advocacy pieces as a way to obscure the purpose of the public sector. In the process, Fordham serves as a vehicle that assists in redirecting scarce tax dollars away from public school districts so our assets can be siphoned by those who dwell on the unelected and largely unaccountable dark side presence known as charterdom.

In a recent Columbus Dispatch guest column, the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute advocated for scheduling high stakes testing in 2021 in the midst of the greatest disruption in education programming in the past 100 years. The article, “Don’t cancel K-12 testing when we need data more than ever,” contended that testing is needed to “effectively target resources in recovery efforts.”

Based on his own online professional profile, Fordham’s research director has cited no apparent or documented experience in classroom teaching as a practitioner or in the study of education in college, yet his articles about teaching and learning as a presumed authority on the profession are often published in the Columbus Dispatch and other major Ohio newspapers.

By comparison, Dr. Diane Ravitch, an historian of education and recognized authority on research and student learning, has this to say about the value of student testing, particularly in a pandemic:

“Under normal circumstances, without a pandemic, the tests are useless. [T]he tests do not provide teachers or parents with timely or useful information about students’ progress, as the editorial writers wrongly assume. The teachers typically are not allowed to see the questions on the tests, they are never allowed to discuss them with students or other teachers, and they never see how their own students responded (rightly or wrongly) to specific questions. The scores are reported 4-6 months after the tests were given. The scores become a way to tell students how they ranked, but not what they need to learn. They serve no diagnostic purpose.”

So in a time of upheaval, why is there such a strong push for student testing, knowing that the results won’t offer a prescription for discrete student learning needs? Said another way, besides a profit motive that might come from the test companies, are there other reasons for organizations like Fordham to be in the test promotion business when their very validity and purpose in the midst of a pandemic is subject to question?

A closer look at Fordham itself is long overdue. Here is the question:

Is Fordham really a legitimate and unbiased source of “relevant, rigorous research, analysis, and commentary for education practitioners and for policymakers at the national, state, and local levels,” as its mission states?

For those who study education policy and the needs of children, the Fordham Institute has been successful in passing itself off as a “think tank.” According to one definition, a think tank is described as an “institute … organized for interdisciplinary research with the objective of providing advice on a diverse range of policy issues and products through the use of specialized knowledge.”

Let’s reread that definition carefully. If an organization exists solely for the purpose of promoting a single idea absent any other alternatives from a diverse public policy menu and has not commissioned a wide range of original research or generated new and specialized knowledge, it may not meet the definition of a think tank. 

For example, several years ago Fordham thrust itself into the national debate about school reform — a code word for privatization — and about establishing academic standards. Dr. Diane Ravitch, who was cited earlier, is not only a recognized educational authority but also a former board member of the Institute’s sister, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. A former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Ravitch had this to say about Fordham’s role in the development of national education policy and standards:

“Fordham has no particular expertise. [But] Much to our surprise and delight, the media ate up the ratings. Whenever we released our grades for the states, there would be big stories in the newspapers in almost every state, and it helped to put [Fordham] on the map.”

Among some observers who have studied the Fordham track record, they would also question the expertise of a supposed think tank that seems to exist only as a promoter of school privatization — or school choice, if we used their own lexicon.

Moreover, Fordham’s supposed role as a think tank is put further into question through its role as a charter school authorizer, or sponsor, as that term is used in Ohio. The role of Fordham as a school authorizer only adds to the conflicted nature of an organization that is more about charter school promotion and advocacy rather than knowledge and research.

It is for these reasons that we suggest to readers that those with first-hand knowledge of Fordham and its activities are of the belief that it has no particular expertise and is undeserving of being identified as a think tank. Instead, those same readers should know that in fact Fordham functions as an advocate and promoter of charter schools and privatization, and nothing else. 

After all, there is a difference between being a charter school promoter and authorizer, compared to an organization that carefully researches societal issues and offers alternatives and proposes solutions based on knowledge and scholarship. 

So let’s be more careful with our language. Real school reform does not mean privatization and real think tanks aren’t promoters and marketers of privatization, an idea that is antithetical to the public interest. Citizens should be careful readers when they see articles that contain language about think tanks, scholarship, research, and data, and particularly when “think tank” solutions are proposed which are designed to influence public policy decisions. In the case of Fordham, it is conflicted by trying to serve as a charter authorizer responsible for oversight and legal compliance as well as a charter school promoter and “think tank” entity. 

And, voila, the result of this conflict? Fordham is the perfect example of a favorite oxymoron: a hidden agenda.

Be careful about what you read, particularly when it comes from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And be cautious about anything coming from an organization which exists from the dark side, in the tank of charterdom. For when the subject is public school privatization, which Fordham calls “school choice,” there is always much to think about with a clear mind, out in the fresh air, and not in a tank.

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Jeanne Melvin
Jeanne Melvin is a retired educator who spent 36 years as a central Ohio public school teacher. Ms. Melvin regularly connects with other public education advocates throughout Ohio to facilitate action plans to support public school districts. She spends much of her free time on public education activism through social media, Statehouse testimony, and community forums, among other actions. Jeanne is a founding member and president of Public Education Partners, a statewide coalition of parents, grassroots citizen groups, school board members, educators, and school administrators that advocates for high quality public education in the Buckeye State.
Denis Smith
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education's charter school office. He has additional experience working in marketing communications with a publisher and in association management as an executive with a national professional society. Mr. Smith is a member of the board of Public Education Partners.