Sarah Fine is a former teacher and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work has appeared in Teacher Magazine, Education Week, and the Washington Post.
Last month, Ednews editor Alan Gottlieb published a commentary in which he shared a vision that can only be called bleak. In the piece, he describes a meeting where education researchers and policymakers sat down in an attempt to reconcile their differences – apparently to no avail.
“Ultimately we will never have a system that approaches the ideal,” Alan concludes. Education researchers, it seems, will never be able to reconcile their “reflective, deliberate” natures with the action-driven haste of policymakers and practitioners.
A year ago I would not have paid any attention to this claim. Like many teachers, I thought of education research as a pale netherworld that had little to do with the realities of my classroom.
Now, however, everything has changed. As a first-year doctoral student in Harvard’s Ed.D. program, I find myself continually grappling with the issues that Alan’s commentary raises. Will education research always be sidelined when it comes to real-world decisions? Are education researchers doomed to live forever in the realm of the arcane?
Nothing less than my professional future rests on these questions – and so I have to believe that the answer in both cases is “no.”
Admittedly, Alan’s doom-and-gloom vision is something of a paradigm in the field. As early as 1929, John Dewey called education research “an arm chair science.” In 1993, theorist Carl Kaestle wrote about the absence of influential studies in the field, citing this as the reason for the “awful reputation” of its research. More recently, historian Ellen Lagemann published a book exploring the “troubling” fact that schools of education, in their quest to gain greater acceptance in the academy, have tended to privilege theoretical over applied work.
If this were the whole story, I might quit graduate school altogether. Luckily, however, it’s not.
Education research may have a deservedly awful reputation, but there are an increasing number of researchers who have been breaking the mold, opening the possibility for an entirely different paradigm of interaction between the studiers and the worlds they study.
Melissa Roderick, who I recently heard speak, is a prime example. As well as being a professor at the University of Chicago, Roderick is one of three directors at the Consortium for Chicago School Research (CCSR), a high-profile organization that works with the Chicago Public Schools to improve education outcomes in the district. Roderick’s role involves collaborating with district teachers and administrators to identify research questions, design studies to investigate them and build capacity with respect to acting on the findings.
The key word here is collaborate. Roderick and her colleagues at CCSR reject the idea that researchers must maintain an academic distance from the “subjects” involved in their work. Instead, they treat practitioners and policymakers as key partners in the research process – and as key players in the process of implementing research-driven changes.
For example, in her most recent project Roderick has been focusing on the relationship between Chicago Public School students’ high school careers and their post-secondary outcomes. She began by talking to administrators about their beliefs with respect to the college application behaviors of their students, and followed up by surveying the students themselves. This process allowed her to unearth a troubling reality: while most administrators attributed low application rates to a lack of interest, 95 percent of students reported a desire to attend four-year colleges.
A more traditional researcher might have taken this finding and published a study about the “understanding gap” with respect to college aspirations among inner-city students. For Roderick, however, identifying the gap was just the beginning. After aggregating the data, she convened a group of teachers and administrators and asked them to respond to her findings. The result? A collaborative, action-based research project.
“When I brought the data to the schools, people were like, ‘Wow, if the kids want to apply to four-year colleges, why aren’t they doing it?’” Roderick says. “Once they saw that there was a break in the pipeline, they were all about trying to figure out what was going on – and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”
Roderick’s project has already resulted in meaningful changes in policy and practice with respect to making the college application process more navigable for Chicago families. Several of the preliminary findings have “trickled up” to the federal level, where folks are working to make the Free Application for Federal Student Aid less arduous to complete. The project also promises to contribute to a broader body of knowledge about college access.
I can only imagine how it might feel to be a teacher or administrator involved in work like this. I certainly would see the research process as highly connected my school, my students, and my work. I would also be likely to devote serious attention to whatever findings emerged – particularly if local policymakers were doing the same.
In the world of theory, work that contributes to theory and also has implications for use lies in what is called Pasteur’s Quadrant. Plenty of traditional education research has aspired to occupy this space, and some of it arguably does. What the work of Roderick and CCSR has done, however, is to shift the paradigm in an important way. For them, successful Pasteur-quadrant research does not just have implications for use; it has real, ongoing, evolving use by those who have the agency to make positive change.
That, in my not-yet-professional opinion, is an idea worth taking seriously.
None of this is to suggest that education researchers should entirely change tacks. They can, and should, continue to frame questions, weight modes of inquiry, and tease out transcendent ideas. They should certainly remain devoted to reflection and theory-building. But their obligation should equally be to the real people in the real worlds that they study – to listen to them, to work with them, and to support them in reaching ever-deeper understandings.
A lot will have to change in order for this to happen. Schools of education will need to find ways to validate, honor, and encourage action-oriented and community-level work. Practitioners and policymakers will need to re-imagine themselves as active participants in the research process. Funders will need to provide ongoing support to organizations like CCSR.
Most importantly, researchers themselves will need to shift their stance. They will need to open themselves to the vulnerabilities and urgencies of the worlds they study. They will need to seek on-the-ground partners and cultivate ongoing relationships with them. They will need to stand up for these choices in the academy.
I hope that that I will have the courage and opportunity to stand among them.
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