If This Education Research Were Real, You Might Buy Me a Cool Christmas Gift

‘Tis the Christmas holiday season, and maybe (just maybe) my last posting of 2013. Nobody’s in school now, and education policy drifts even further from the brain as visions of sugarplums (or actually, new Lego sets) dance in small children’s heads.

Nonetheless, the season provides a great opportunity to drive home an important point about the research that underlies education policy debates. Jay Greene yesterday dispatched a message to Marc Tucker and Diane Ravitch, urging them to contact Santa Claus. (As a small aside, let me make the point that contacting the big jolly man in the red suit can be a difficult task. I’m still trying to get an explanation why last year I got earmuffs, mittens, and socks rather than a new PlayStation.)

Greene points us to a fabulous Education Next piece by Matthew Chingos with the provocative title, “Big Data Wins the War on Christmas.” It seems the Harvard graduate and Brookings Institution fellow stumbled onto some fascinating research data from the latest PISA international test results.

“I can’t prove that Santa is real,” Chingos asks, “but with enough persistence can I come up with a rigorous empirical analysis that measures the causal effect of Christmas on student achievement?” In the end, he finds that “student learning rises more or less in lock-step with the amount of holiday spending, a causal effect that is statistically significant at the 1% level.”

Did you hear that? Buying a 5-year-old edublogging prodigy a PlayStation will contribute positively to helping American students learn more! If that doesn’t stir the goodness of your heart to action, I’m not sure what will.

What’s that, you say? The Chingos piece is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to point out the dangers of drawing big education policy conclusions from less-than-rigorous comparisons? You mean, more holiday shopping isn’t a cause of increased student achievement? That wouldn’t stop you from being generous to little Eddie, would it?

Since I don’t want to cry now, a good laugh might help. And what better kind of laugh than a bunch of education policy wonks at the Fordham Institute dancing and lip-synching instead of taking themselves too seriously:

That’s great, but the 2-minute video simply begs the question: What Does Gadfly Say? Maybe that we should have a more cautious eye about education research and policy prescriptions, and… Have a Merry Christmas!