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AERA Dispatch: Tuesday

Went to a fascinating session featuring Susan Fuhrman (TC Prez), Alex Molnar (Arizona State), and Diane Ravitch (no intro needed/NYU), moderated by Bill Tate (AERA Prez). Tons of ideas on the table, but one take-home question - Alexander Russo, are you as tall as Stanford's Lopez twins?

Now the meat: the session focused on the challenges researchers face in making research relevant to policy. Fuhrman took exception to this framing, arguing it is more productive to think about research/public sphere connections in terms of opportunities for engagement. She suggested that we shouldn't limit our conception of research use to the immediate and the instrumental (i.e. a finding that is translated directly into policy). In fact, Fuhrman argued, findings that translate too quickly may struggle with implementation problems; she gave the familiar example of class size. Fuhrman noted that the purpose of research is to enlighten and frame the conversation; research may not affect policy until years later. For example, a decade-old CPRE policy brief argued that states should differentiate consequences for struggling schools, and such a policy only came to fruition last week. Finally, Fuhrman contended that there is a strong relationship between the quality of the research and the likelihood of research being used.

This sunny view of the research/policy nexus was quickly obliterated by Alex Molnar, who argued - I think convincingly - that policymaking is a political dog fight, and that quality may not be as important as "having the wind at your back" and winning funders with deep pockets. Molnar asked researchers to invest more time understanding the policymaking process - i.e. what comes to be understood as the findings of research and what doesn't - and described how thinktanks engage in a process of "phonysynthesis," through which conflicting evidence is discarded and discredited. Molnar also drew attention to the structural problems of the academy that perpetuate academics' disengagement. In particular, he noted that senior faculty condition junior faculty to be timid and to worry about the impact of speaking out on their tenure decision.

Diane Ravitch, in her inimitable style, talked about the nuts and bolts of public engagement, and brought in a number of examples from NYC. She reminded researchers that we need to write in English if we want to write op-eds, and even chatted a bit about blogging (she gave a special shout out to the NYC Parents blog!) In contrast to Fuhrman, who made the normative argument that "good" research gets picked up, Ravitch pointed out that many districts are cherrypicking their research to support the policy solutions they wanted to push forward anyway. She passionately argued that researchers need to study the ongoing deprofessionalization of education - i.e. why does education embrace non-educators with open arms? - and had the second best quote of the day, related to foundation funding, "Is it more important for [researchers] to be on the gravy train, or to be saying that we're on the wrong track?"

Other page 6 AERA news: the bags are more GQ this year, and there were *700* thirsty researchers at the Spencer reception.

I don't understand the link Ravitch makes between deprofessionalization and valuing the perspective of non-educators. I'm an educator, but I know plenty of non-educators who are better-informed on what works in education than some of my colleagues are. All else being equal, a smart person who has been a teacher makes better ed policy than a smart person who hasn't been, but a smart person who hasn't taught still tends to make better decisions than a not-so-smart one who has.

Don't get me wrong, teaching is certainly being deprofessionalized every day, but this is being accomplished primarily by the "educators" running the unions. Nothing says "this is not a real profession" like tenure and seniority rules and the absence of merit-based pay and promotion.

I'm still a bit baffled by the point of view that education scholarship -- which strikes me as perhaps more politicized than any other area in academia -- is too disconnected from politics. Isn't it the case that way too much education research is obviously driven by the researcher's preferred policy position -- for or against vouchers, for or against charters, for or against class size reductions, for or against teacher certification requirements, for or against phonics, for or against high-stakes testing, and many other examples.

What am I missing -- where is all this education scholarship that is supposedly too pristine and lofty and unconnected to any potential policy?

I am a non-educator, so to speak. I worked for the IRS for thirty years and was elected to our school board 8 years ago. I am retired, but teach at our University Center as an adjunct instructor in Management and Leadership. What I have seen in my 8 years as a Board member, is relctance more often then an open arms welcoming of non educators ideas fro reform. Educators, in my estimation are in lockstep with the idea that the "system" is fine, we just need to tweak here and there. I believe the system needs an overhall, not some tweaking. Educators research, and argue about whole language versus phonics while a significant amount of children cannot read at grade level. Educators research and argue about traditional math versus connected math and more and more children cannot meet math standards. Educators research and argue class size while drop out rates increase. I believe educators should welcome some non-educators with open arms, because they may have some new approachsthat can help.

Since I wasn't there, I can't respond to quotes out of context. I do have one take on the question of non-educators.

Educational policy is driven by a particular view of education: its purpose, its content, its short- and long-term goals. That's stating the obvious--but one should carefully examine the assumptions underlying any proposed policy or program. Who cares if it's successful, if its very premises are suspect?

Some non-educators have a decidedly non-intellectual or even anti-intellectual bent. They are more concerned with turning students into good corporate workers than giving them an understanding of literature, history, languages, math, science, music, and art. This does not apply to all in the business world by any means--but we do see a lot of it.

Then there's a strange alliance between the anti-intellectual corporate agenda and certain extremes of progressivism: a disregard for the specifics of subject matter, and a preference for group work over individual thought, and great value placed on "creativity" and "higher-order thinking" with nary a thing to think about.

Of course, there are non-educators with a great love of knowledge, and respect for its place in the curriculum. But when non-educators hostile to knowledge sell multi-million-dollar packages that are supposedly "research-proven," "child-centered," and full of "strategies for success," you end up with a lot of nonsense on the one hand and a lot of queasy teachers on the other.

After getting my Ph.D. in Education Policy and Research and now working in a real live school system for 5 years, I have to say that Alex Molnar's response seems right on. All the research (and even logic) can't seem to turn back a strong political wind. And, Ravtich's comments that research is cherry picked according to need...BINGO. My political science classes were most helpful in this regard....


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Recent Comments

  • DocWayson: After getting my Ph.D. in Education Policy and Research and read more
  • Diana: Since I wasn't there, I can't respond to quotes out read more
  • Gerald Morris: I am a non-educator, so to speak. I worked for read more
  • Stuart Buck: I'm still a bit baffled by the point of view read more
  • Socrates: I don't understand the link Ravitch makes between deprofessionalization and read more




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