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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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RHSU Exclusive: The Five-Tool Scholar

By Rick Hess — January 09, 2017 4 min read

On Wednesday in this space, I’ll be publishing the 2017 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, honoring and ranking the 200 education scholars who had the biggest influence on the nation’s education discourse last year. Today, I want to take a few moments to explain the purpose of those rankings (and tomorrow I’ll review the scoring rubric).

The exercise starts from two simple premises: 1) Ideas matter and 2) people devote more time and energy to those activities that are acknowledged and lauded. The academy today does a passable job of recognizing good disciplinary scholarship but a pretty mediocre job of recognizing scholars who work to move ideas from the pages of barely-read journals into the national policy conversation. This state of affairs may not much matter when it comes to the study of material science or Renaissance poetry, but it does if we’re hoping to see responsible researchers contribute to public discussions about schools and schooling.

Now, as readers know, I’m no wild-eyed enthusiast when it comes to the miraculous power of research. I don’t think it’s useful or sensible to imply that public policy in a free nation should be driven by the whims of the research community. That said, I do believe that thoughtful scholars have much to offer. They can ask hard questions, challenge lazy conventions, scrutinize the real-world impact of yesterday’s reforms, and examine how things might be done better.

Full stop. Let’s change gears. In baseball, there’s an ideal of the “five-tool” ballplayer. This is a player who can run, field, throw, hit, and hit with power. A terrific ballplayer might excel at just a few of these, but there’s a special appreciation for the rare player who can do it all.

Scholars who do policy-relevant research require a similar range of skills to excel. Yet university promotion, pay, and prestige tend to reward a very narrow range of activity and accomplishment. I’velong thought that if we did more to recognize and encourage five-tool scholars, we might induce more scholars to spend more time doing things other than publishing opaque articles in niche journals, sitting on committees, and serving in professional associations. And we might encourage them to spend more time getting good at those other roles.

As I see it, the extraordinary public scholar excels in five areas: disciplinary scholarship, policy analysis and popular writing, convening and shepherding collaborations, providing incisive commentary, and speaking in the public square. The scholars who are skilled in most or all of these areas can cross boundaries, foster crucial collaborations, spark fresh thinking, and bring research into the world of policy in smart and useful ways. The academy, though, treats many of these skills as an afterthought—or even a distraction! And while foundations fund evaluations, convenings, policy analysis, and dissemination, few make any particular effort to develop multi-skilled scholars or support this whole panoply of activity.

Today, academe offers many professional rewards for scholars who stay in their comfort zone and pursue narrow, hyper-sophisticated research, but few for “five-tool” scholars. One result is that the public square is filled by impassioned advocates (including academics with little in the way of scholarly accomplishment), while we hear far less than I’d like from those who are best equipped to recognize complexities and explain hard truths. Now, one can’t unduly fault those academics who seek to avoid unpleasant public debates by swaddling themselves in the pleasant irrelevance of the ivory tower. After all, wading into public debate can anger friends and call forth vituperative personal attacks. One small way to encourage academics to step into the fray and revisit academic norms is, I think, by doing more to recognize and value those scholars who do step out.

Reaction to the Edu-Scholar rankings has left me convinced that the status quo is not immutable. I’ve heard from deans who have used these rankings to help identify candidates for new openings or to inform decisions about promotion and pay. I’ve heard from a remarkable number of scholars who’ve been able to use these data to start discussions with department chairs about institutional support, or who’ve flagged them when applying for a job and for promotion. More than a score of prominent institutions have issued releases touting the performance of their faculty in the rankings, spotlighting activity that too rarely gets such notice.

The Edu-Scholar rankings reflect, in roughly equal parts, the influence of a scholar’s academic scholarship, on the one hand, and their influence on public debate as reflected in old and new media, on the other. The point of the various metrics is not to tally citations or sound bites, but to harness a “wisdom of crowds” sense of a scholar’s public footprint in the past year—whether that was due to their current scholarship, commentary, larger body of work, or media presence.

Now, no one should overstate the precision of this exercise. It’s a conversation-starter. It’s best to think of it as analogous to similar rankings of quarterbacks, movie stars, and mutual fund managers. It’s a data-informed effort to spur discussion about which scholars are doing something that’s important but too often overlooked.

A final point: Readers will note that the rankings do not address things like teaching, mentoring, and community service. Such is the nature of things. These scores are not imagined as a summative measure of a scholar’s contribution. Rather, they are intended to help balance traditional publication-heavy measures of research productivity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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