Not Another Center-Left Think Tank

Perhaps not surprisingly, I am skeptical about the Hamilton Project, a new Brookings Institution effort staffed with former Clinton and Rubin folks to put out new ideas in education and other areas that has gotten a few prominent mentions over the past couple of weeks, as well as a big endorsement from political superstar Barack Obama.

At first glance, the Project doesn't seem particularly focused on education issues, its first set of education ideas (summer school, performance pay) don't seem innovative, and -- most problematic -- there's little attention given to political considerations that need attention to bringing any new ideas to reality.


First off, I'm dubious about what happens when organizations try and cover a broad spectrum of policy areas (in this case, economic policy, education, and a few other things). As we've already seen in other situations, there's usually a expertise and quality problem when that happens (Foundation Fix).

At the same time, there's already a positive glut of think tanks and policy shops out there, broad (New America, Center on American Progress) and narrow (Center on Education Policy, Education Sector). Does everybody have to have their own think tank these days -- Hilary has the Center, so Barack gets Hamilton?

Substantively, I'm not sure I see much that's new or even controversial in the first paper, Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job, nor in the idea of more summer school, which almost everyone has been doing for a decade now.

Most of all, I don't I see any notions about how to make any of the changes that are being advocated into reality. It's the political piece that so much of what passes for education thinking these days is missing, at least in written form.

Is it considered bad form to write about these things, much in the way that traditional journalism tries to hide its sentiments behinds the conceit of objectivity? Is it considered inappropriate to consider crass political considerations in print, even when political objectives are clearly afoot?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a lot of dicusssion about whether think tanks and their research are independent enough. This is a separate, but related problem. Can think tanks, in their effort to see academic and neutral, effectively address what are at least in part political problems?

Whatever the cause, so much time and thought seems to go into everything but the crucial issue of how to get it done -- as if the ideas are so new and so powerful that they can overcome the host of political challenges that keep things as they are. As we've already learned this year with national testing, that's usually not the case (It Takes More Than A Good Idea To Change Education).

Perhaps there are strategic memos going around that I'm not seeing, or tough-minded conference discussions that I don't get to. Part of me wishes that were the case. But I'm guessing it's not so.


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