The Role of Think Tanks in Education Policymaking

The Role of Think Tanks in Education Policymaking

Policy Brief #24-5April 2024


Summary

While think tanks and other organizations purport to provide evidence and analysis on important educational issues for policymakers and the press, those with the loudest voices and biggest influence often appear to be the least qualified to do so.



While many areas of public policy are seeing the growing influence of private interests, public education in particular has been subjected to agendas, wishes and whims of private individuals and organizations seeking to remake schooling around their preferences. Indeed, by some estimates, one of every four dollars from US philanthropies is aimed at the education sector (Bishop & Green, 2008). Many such resources are targeted at influencing education policymaking, often by funding research and/or policy advocacy organizations.  In education, think tanks and adjacent entities (such as advocacy groups, reform organizations, media outlets, etc.) in particular enjoy a significant — and arguably outsized — role in policy discussions (Reckhow & Snyder, 2014; Rich, 2004). 

But in an age where policymakers have been calling for “evidence-based” or “research-based” policy, it is worthwhile to consider the degree to which those influencing policy actually advance their agendas from a position of expertise: how they are able to understand, produce, analyze, or interpret research. 

Measuring influence is not a new idea. Efforts such as Rick Hess’ Edu-Scholar Rankings1, for example, regularly rank researchers based on measures of their public influence.  But our new analysis goes a step further, contrasting the rankings of the influence of think tanks and think tank-type organizations (and their individual policy “experts”) with a ranking of their measured expertise in education policy research.

Perhaps in a perfect world where evidence shapes policymakers’ responses to issues, we might expect to see a neat relationship between expertise and influence. In that ideal world, organizations and individuals with significant expertise on an issue would be called on by policymakers and the public to diagnose problems, examine alternatives, measure the effectiveness of different options, and so forth.

But we don’t live in such an imaginary place.  In the real world, policymakers face a cacophony of interest groups with their preferred policy solutions clamoring to be heard.  And some groups are more successful than others in being heard and advancing their agenda.  But this begs the question as to whether their success is due to better use of evidence, or other factors, such as political influence, ideological alignment, or media acumen. 

While we cannot address all of those factors in this brief, we can examine the degree to which influence is matched with research expertise. We use established measures of media influence for think tanks and other such policy organizations and contrast those with measures of their research expertise.

While we describe our specific methods in more detail elsewhere, here we show two contrasting rankings: (1) the organizations with highest scores of public influence, and (2) the organizations with highest scores of scholarly expertise (you can look here for a more in-depth discussion of the project, including ranking of individuals at think tanks, and here to view the full results and methods).

 

As you can see, the two lists are quite different, with some influential organizations not scoring highly on expertise.

In fact, this graph shows how those organizations map out based on those two measures.  In that perfect world we mentioned, the ideal line would show a strong correlation.  Instead, we see (at best) a weak relationship, with organizations such as the Manhattan Institute and the Center for Education Reform having an outsized influence relative to their comparatively paltry expertise, while others, such as the Learning Policy Institute, having significant expertise, but little influence.

 

Of course, this short exercise shows we are far from the ideal.  But it also raises warnings for policymakers and the public.  Prominent organizations (and individuals) may not have the expertise to support their positions, which may be based more in ideology and influence than expertise and evidence.

This brief is based on the 2024 Edu-Thinker Influence and Expertise Rankings, which you can read more about here and view the full results and methods here.


Authors

Dr. Christopher Lubienski is a Professor of Education Policy at Indiana University Bloomington and Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Dr. Joel R. Malin is an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at Miami University and a Fellow with CEEP.

Paul Faulkner is a PhD candidate in Education Policy Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.


1This language was changed at the request of Education Week to reflect the fact that while Hess’ rankings are hosted on their site, EdWeek does not play any other role in his rankings.