Think tanks and evidence: a critical appraisal of Grattan’s ‘turning around schools’

Year: 2015

Author: Thompson, Greg, Loughland, Tony

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Think tanks representing a range of political positions have become important policy actors in contemporary education policy in Australia, bearing a striking similarity to what has and is occurring in the UK and the USA. This paper focuses on the Grattan Institute, one of the more prominent think tanks in Australia, with a particular emphasis on their ‘Turning Around Schools’ report, which identifies five factors that turn schools around. Our presentation identifies problems with the methodology and data analysis that leads to the implied causal claims made in the report. Our critical analysis is that ‘Turning Around Schools’ views education change and improvement in overly simplified ways, resulting in the promotion of ‘recipes’ for success disseminated through the genre of digests of happy stories, small wins and decontextualized solutions. The simple solutions espoused in the report exemplify the weakness of the ‘what works’ approach to education and reform. These become ‘evidence’ that reinforces certain dominant beliefs (markets, competitions, teacher quality) that fail to grasp, and therefore offer solutions to, the complexities of schools within their contexts. Furthermore, even if we accept that the five factors were the reasons that the schools in the report had ‘turned it around’, it does not follow that these five factors would produce the same effect in different school contexts. The significance of Grattan and ‘Turning Around Schools’, however, is much more than simply a report that overstates causality and misreads some data. The rise of think tanks like Grattan represents a broader reconfiguration of the relationships between states, citizens and expertise as we have moved beyond social welfare agendas, and are finding the market fundamentalism that replaced it is no utopia. As academics engaged in policy research, we ask: How do we understand the role of think tanks? What are the opportunities and limitations? How might we understand the role of academic research and its contribution to policy debates in a 24 hour media cycle where sound bites seem to have greater impact than careful analysis? Perhaps most importantly, given the significance of think tanks in policy making and the expectation that they are here to stay, how do we hold them to account?