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Critical Thinking Resources for Education

Brookings Institution

Brookings is the oldest and one of the best-known of the Washington-based “think tanks,” tracing its origins back to 1916 and founder Robert Somers Brookings, a wealthy St. Louis businessman. Its scholars generally have very strong academic credentials.

Reports from the institute and its scholars can be viewed by research programs, policy centers and research projects. They fall mainly into the categories of competitiveness, education, migration, health care or energy security.

Brookings says it is funded by “foundations, corporations, and individuals, and to a lesser extent by endowment income.”

Comments: Brookings has a well-earned reputation for scholarly excellence. Its reports are, for the most part, clearly written and can be fine guides to understanding how government programs work, or don't work. It has a reputation for leaning slightly to the left.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Congressional Research Service

The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the service, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.

The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups, including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.

The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.

FactCheck.org

According to its website, FactCheck.org is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer  advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Its staff monitors factual accuracy in American politics, looking at what’s being said in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and the like.

The website has three main outlets for its work: Articles, the FactCheck Wire (for shorter items or ones of less national interest) and Ask FactCheck (in which the group’s staff members answer questions sent in by readers, often about chain e-mails on political subjects). The group debunks myths, falsehoods and exaggerations by politicians and outside groups involved in election campaigns and public policy debates. Examples of FactCheck.org’s work include stories about misinformation spread during public policy debates such as the one on overhauling the health care system, and inaccurate claims made during election campaigns such as John McCain’s position on Medicare or Barack Obama’s birthplace. The group’s work is often cited by other media organizations.

FactCheck.org is funded by, and is a project of, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which was established by the Annenberg Foundation with a $20 million endowment in 1993. The Annenberg Foundation also made additional grants to support FactCheck.org’s work. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. In 2010, FactCheck.org began accepting donations from individual members of the public. Its does not accept any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.

Political Leanings: None

Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s best-known think tanks on the right, says its mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a
strong national defense.”

Heritage scholars generally argues for lower taxes, less spending for social programs and less government regulation of business. When Heritage criticizes Republicans it is often for being too liberal: It supported President Bush’s first-term tax cuts, for example, but criticized his expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.

Comments: Facts cited by Heritage are generally solid and well-documented, though quite often they reflect only one side of an ideological debate.

Political Leanings: Strongly conservative

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says it is “the nation’s premier civil rights coalition,” and it has “coordinated the national
legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.” It was founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Today, the LCCR has more than 180 member organizations including People for the American Way, AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and constituent unions, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization for Women.

Its website offers reports on such issues as fair housing and the status of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In addition to organizing various civil and voting rights campaigns, the LCCR is one of the main groups monitoring judicial nominations from the liberal point of view. The website for that campaign offers articles and op-eds, fact sheets, and profiles of current and past nominees. The LCCR also provides overviews of civil rights cases on the Supreme Court’s docket each term.

Comments: Most material on this site has a strong liberal, pro-civil rights slant, though with that in mind it can be useful.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Librarians’ Internet Index

Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.

Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.

Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.

Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leads to rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.

Political Leanings: None

National Academies

The nonprofit National Academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering — generate and disseminate expert research and judgments on matters of science, including the social sciences. They bill themselves as “advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine.”

The Academies convene panels of experts to address matters of scientific policy. Only top scientists can become members, and that honor includes a duty to serve (for free) on study committees, which discuss “national or international issues involving science, technology, human health, or environmental quality.” Hundreds of these committees meet each year. Study topics are usually requested by the federal government, though state governments and private concerns can also request and fund projects. Committee reports are published by the National Academies Press and can be searched and read for free online. The main Academies website features capsule reviews of new and notable reports. In addition to the 200 to 300 reports published each year, the Academies also produce an annual Report to Congress, synthesizing the past year’s research.

While the Academies do not receive direct federal appropriations, about 85 percent of their funding comes from the federal government. The rest comes from state agencies, private sponsors, foundations and the National Academies endowment. A breakdown of funding sources is included in the annual Report to Congress. The Academies aim to keep partisan and personal interests out of their decisions. Sponsors have no control over how studies are conducted or their outcomes, and the committees deliberate in private to minimize outside influence.

Comments: Academies reports can be dense and difficult for laypeople to read, although full-text searching makes it easier to find relevant pages. The website contains a searchable archive of press releases about the reports that are usually easier to analyze and digest. Academy recommendations are often cautious, even equivocal. Particularly strong statements or strenuous recommendations represent a significant scientific consensus.

Political Leanings: None

National Center for Education Statistics

Part of the U.S Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the National Center for Education Statistics publishes and analyzes a wide variety of data pertaining to public school education and finances. In its mission statement, the NCES says it aims to conduct studies that compare international education statistics with U.S education results and seeks to be the “primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education.”

The NCES’ website contains reports on such subjects as the use of educational technology in public school districts, and it has data on the makeup of the student bodies of public schools nationwide. Its data allowing for comparisons between schools internationally and those in the United States is widely used. Two of the major international programs that show how U.S. students compare with students in other countries are the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Results from both studies are available on the NCES site.

Comments: The NCES regularly posts statistics, surveys and analyses of education in the United States.

National Conference of State Legislatures

A bipartisan organization for state, commonwealth and territorial legislators and their staffs, the National Conference of State Legislatures “provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.” The organization advocates the interests of state governments.

The NCSL’s website contains information about the issues state governments are facing, such as education, environmental protection, transportation, criminal justice and state-tribal relations. Visitors to the site can access various reports, including summaries of which states enacted certain types of legislation on, for example, gambling or immigration. The site also contains information on state elections and election laws.

The “GrassCatcher” page is a daily roundup of state and policy news. Visitors can listen to NCSL’s podcasts and request a personalized daily or weekly e-mail on specified policy topics.

Comments: The website is a good resource for information on the status of state laws on various subjects.

National Governors Association

The National Governors Association was formed in 1908 and represents all 50 state governors as well as those from five U.S. territories. The NGA’s Office of Federal Relations in Washington, D.C., lobbies for policies that reflect the governors’ views, and its Center for Best Practices is a consulting firm that helps governors “develop and implement innovative solutions to public policy challenges.” The Center for Best Practices issues policy reports and writes Front & Center, a weekly newsletter on what the NGA and its governors are doing. It also funds state projects. For instance, it supported 15 states in developing programs to fight childhood obesity. Reports on these projects can be found on the Center’s part of the NGA site.

The public can access information on individual governors and issues of interest to the NGA on the website.

To be part of the NGA, states must pay dues, which help fund the organization’s activities. The Center for Best Practices is financed primarily through federal and private foundation grants and partially through the NGA’s Corporate Fellows Program, which accepts $20,000 from companies that then act as resources for the center. That program is designed to increase dialogue between the public and private sectors.

Comments: The NGA is bipartisan but writes about issues from the perspective of state governors. It vigorously promotes its members’ proposals and accomplishments.

Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that’s a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, calls itself a “fact tank.” It conducts public opinion polling and social science research, and publishes reports and information on various issues through seven distinct projects:

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press examines public attitudes toward the news media, surveys the demographic makeup of the American electorate, analyzes public and opinion leaders’ views on international policy, and measures public use of media sources. As with all of the Pew Research Center projects, its surveys are published on the Web site, along with commentary and datasets.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism conducts empirical studies of press coverage, mainly through content analysis. Its annual report on journalism, State of the News Media, is a comprehensive look at American journalism, including trends in the industry, content analyses and the economics of the business.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project researches the impact of the Internet on people, society and various facets of life, such as the work, health care and politics.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life functions as a forum for discussion of religion and public affairs. It publishes polls and reports on subjects such as religious affiliations, bioethics, religion and politics, the death penalty, and religion and social welfare.

The Pew Hispanic Center focuses on eight key subject areas: demography, economics, education, identity, immigration, labor, politics and remittances. It conducts or commissions studies and public opinion surveys on Latino issues and perspectives. Its estimates on the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. have been widely cited.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project conducts public opinion polls worldwide on various subjects, including top issues in the news and people’s personal views of their lives. Its surveys have been conducted in 54 countries.

Social & Demographic Trends examines behaviors and attitudes in various areas of American life, such as family, health, work and leisure. Its reports pair public opinion polling with demographic data analysis.

Comments: The center is a good resource for public opinion surveys and detailed studies in its seven project areas.

Political Leanings: None

ProCon.org

This independent, nonprofit website lays out the arguments on both sides of a host of controversial issues. Its mission statement: “We promote critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship.”

ProCon.org presents issues such as “Sports and Drugs” or “Death Penalty” by giving a brief overview of the controversy, then framing the key question — “Should performance-enhancing drugs (such as steroids) be accepted in sports?” — and breaking it down into 10 underlying debates — “Athletes as Role Models” and “Sportsmanship,” for instance. Quotes from various sources on each side of the issue help readers understand the main points of contention and what the arguments are in support of each perspective.

The nonpartisan site was founded in 2004 by businessman Steve Markoff and his wife, Jadwiga.

Comments: ProCon.org is unusual in that it provides the arguments on both sides of an issue, along with sources for those who want to follow up further.

Political Leanings: None

RAND Corporation

RAND conducts research on issues that relate to a broad range of public policy matters. The nonprofit corporation has been operating since 1948, when it was primarily concerned with security and defense technology; it has since broadened its areas of research to include health, education, environmental and social policy. RAND is funded primarily by federal, state and local governments, but also undertakes projects on behalf of foundations, universities, charitable organizations and private companies. The bulk of its funding comes from contracts with the U.S. government and military.

RAND has full research reports available for download on its website, along with research briefs and technical papers. The corporation is respected for its research integrity, and its publications are considered serious and authoritative across party and issue lines.

Comments: In addition to research papers and briefs, RAND's website includes an archive of commentary pieces by RAND researchers. It is important to draw a distinction between the organization's research, which is nonpartisan, and these pieces, which represent the opinions of individuals.

Political Leanings: None

Regulations.gov

Regulations.gov was set up in 2003 to better equip citizens to find, view and comment upon the vast array of federal regulations.

After Congress passes laws, federal agencies are responsible for enforcing them. They use regulations to accomplish that task, spelling out in detail how specific statutes are to be implemented. Each new proposed regulation must go through a notice-and-comment process, meaning that an agency must publicly announce a proposed regulation and then allow citizens the chance to weigh in. Keeping track of these draft rules once was a daunting project, as there are thousands of federal regulatory agencies. Regulations.gov simplifies the process by collecting proposed regulations from each federal agency and offering a forum for submitting
comments on them.

The site also catalogs federal regulations, so that anyone wanting to check the wording of rules that were issued to implement, say, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act can find them here.

The site can be searched by keywords, phrases or rule numbers. A short glossary of regulatory terms is provided, as is an extensive user guide. The site also includes an RSS feed that provides up-to-the-minute notice of new federal regulations.

Comments: The basic keyword search is straightforward, but the most powerful search functions require considerable knowledge of the regulatory process. If you know what you are looking for, Regulations.gov offers one-stop shopping. It is less useful for casual browsing and novices.

Social Science Research Council

The Social Science Research Council is a New York-based “independent not-for-profit research association” that brings the work of academic social scientists to contemporary social problems. Recent projects include studying the causes of state violence, fostering understanding of Muslim communities and analyzing the human impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The staff and affiliated scholars of the Social Science Research Council are largely professional academic social scientists. About three-quarters of the board of directors are professors at respected universities. The SSRC says it is funded “from a range of private foundations and public institutions.” Documents available on the website show that its largest contributors include the Mellon, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the U.S. State Department.

The SSRC currently organizes its work into four main areas: Global Security and Cooperation, Knowledge Institutions, Migration and The Public Sphere. SSRC’s website contains online articles written by staff members and a quarterly journal featuring work by independent scholars working on  SSRC-related projects.

Comments: The Social Science Research Council is a clearinghouse for academic work in the social sciences. Its reports are, for the most part, free from partisan slant. They are fine sources of information, though they may be more technical and jargon-filled than reports from "think tanks" like the Brookings Institution.

Political Leanings: Neutral

Urban Institute

The Urban Institute says it is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization” focusing on “the social, economic, and
governance problems facing the nation.” It has its roots in the Great Society era of government anti-poverty programs; it was chartered by a
blue-ribbon commission assembled by President Lyndon Johnson to examine problems and issues faced by the nation’s urban populations.

The Urban Institute’s website offers detailed information, organized both by topic and by policy center, which are research arms within the
Institute that focus on specific areas. The Issues in Focus section offers summaries of the group’s research, along with links to more
in-depth reports relating to specific areas of policy disputes, such as Social Security reform, immigration and education. The institute also
maintains a Policy Decoder section, which is a helpful glossary of the more technical terms used in debates about public policy and social
programs.

Comments: Though liberal in its leanings, the institute's scholarship is widely respected.

Political Leanings: Liberal

USA.gov

USA.gov calls itself “the official U.S. gateway to all government information.” The U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications oversees the website, which offers a library of links to government agencies, information about particular laws and regulations, and data and statistics. Visitors can get pertinent links classified by topic and access links to state and local governments as well.

Comments: USA.gov can be a good place to begin for researchers who are unsure of where to look first.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.

Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”

The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.

Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”

Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked  against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.

Political Leanings: None