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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Let's Study That!

Dennis Fox

November 20, 2003

During my academic life I learned that more research needs to be done. It doesn't matter what the topic, or how much we already know, or whether new facts will change anyone's mind. Sometimes the realization that no single study can tie up every loose end leads to exciting intellectual exploration. Other times it just rationalizes indecision: we always need more data.

Studying things to death isn't just an academic habit. Politicians send bills to committee for further study when their real goal is obstruction, not improvement. Corporate managers -- as scholars of corporate bureaucracy and Dilbert readers know -- also use "further study" as a euphemism for inaction.

Committees have another use: shrewd decision-makers use them to portray conclusions as data-driven and consensual rather than pre-determined and unilateral. Since persistent political disputes primarily stem from competing values and unequal access to power rather than from inadequate factual knowledge, additional research rarely resolves underlying conflict.

Of course, sometimes ad hoc committees just waste time rather than serve some ulterior motive. I'll even concede that occasionally they do some good, though that outcome is hardly routine.

Why these musings? The Brookline School Committee decided two weeks ago to appoint a panel of experts to recommend how to search for a new school superintendent. Not to do the search, mind you, but to advise the search committee -- to be named later -- about what process to follow.

The current superintendent, Richard Silverman, abruptly resigned last month, before knowing whether the committee would renew his three-year contract. I'm not sure why some in town considered Silverman a liability. He's not the most dynamic administrator, but he seemed to me as well suited to the job as anyone who's likely to replace him. Silverman's excess of caution seemed consistent with the School Committee's own modest level of adventure. And it usually kept him from making the kinds of superficial, paternalistic statements frequently uttered by his predecessor.

In any case, I would have thought a few phone calls to other districts, or reading a couple of articles, would provide enough recruitment ideas for the School Committee to chew over. Will a few high-profile meetings of experts lead to a significantly new approach? We'll have to wait and see. More research needs to be done.

Our School Committee members at least can argue that there's too much work for part-timers to manage. Not all politicians can make that claim. Full-time Governor Mitt Romney seems to spend his time creating new committees designed sometimes to stall, sometimes to perform for show, sometimes to throw a few marginally helpful facts into the mix. This effort suits someone who thinks the state should operate like a beneficent business with good-government principles, a stance that can be interpreted alternatively as gee-whiz charming, naïve, or calculated to propel him to the White House.

One committee is trying to write a death penalty statute that guarantees no one is executed in error, even if DNA labs are sloppy, witnesses make mistakes, cops manufacture evidence, or prosecutors lie. These happen often enough so that any committee designed to create perfection should meet only long enough to disband itself.

Another committee is studying how to make state prisons safer. No doubt committee member Marty Rosenthal, one of Brookline's progressive voices, has already told his colleagues we need not more studies but smaller prisons, the release of nonviolent offenders, and better selection, training, and oversight of guards.

A third committee follows Romney's executive order last summer eliminating affirmative action rules in favor of "general hiring principles." When the outcry forced him to backtrack, the gov set up a committee to recommend guidelines instead, which probably won't differ much from his original plan.

A fourth committee is examining education, emphasizing Romney's own neat idea: forcing parents who want their kids to attend full-day kindergarten to attend weekend parenting classes. That's a nonstarter, but I wonder what the committee will do with the rest of the governor's suggestions -- notably, making it easier to fire and selectively reward teachers. Can't the Education Department keep screwing things up without extra help?

I wonder: do these kinds of committees really have much impact? There must be a study about that, somewhere...

Social Science's Limited Role in Resolving Psycholegal Social Problems

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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