School & District Management

National Academy Guides the Future of Education Research

By Debra Viadero — October 28, 1998 5 min read
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Education research is a field in ferment, a group of leading education scholars says. The task they face now is ensuring that the fermentation process produces smoother varieties of wine, rather than vinegar.

The changes taking place in the field were a main topic of discussion during the annual meeting here of the National Academy of Education, a group of nearly 100 leading education scholars.

Three years ago, the academy set up a commission to review the state of education research and to outline ways of improving it. But, by the group’s mid-October meeting at Stanford University, the commission had completed only the first part of its charge. It had produced a collection of essays expressing the current differences in the field over the purposes, methodologies, and disciplinary perspectives of educational research. The volume is scheduled to be published in April by Jossey-Bass Publishers of San Francisco.

The commission is still a long way off from drawing up any sort of standards to help practitioners, policymakers, and other students of research distinguish “good” studies from “bad” studies.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

“This group very much believes in standards and wants to move toward processes to develop standards, but I think we found out that you can’t just sit down and write them,” said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the academy’s president and a professor of history and education at New York University.

Changing Approaches

In earlier decades, education researchers were primarily psychologists, with a few historians and sociologists thrown in for good measure. Now, scholars in the field are as likely to come from anthropology, cognitive science, education, political science, and other disciplines.

Teachers, too, have joined the ranks, doing research of their own and collaborating on studies in their classrooms by outside experts.

At the same time, study methodologies have proliferated. Besides conducting traditional psychological surveys, education researchers now analyze journals and student writings, make videotapes of classrooms, and transcribe teachers’ words and discussions.

They perform statistical analyses of national test scores, and write long narratives on a single teacher or classroom.

The changes, though mostly welcomed, have led to concerns and confusion over what makes for good education research.

Lauren B. Resnick

“We know a clinical trial isn’t the whole story. But we’re not able to say what the whole story is,” Lauren B. Resnick, a co-director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, said during one of the meetings here. “We often drift into ‘I’m OK, you’re OK,’ and whatever you say is research is research.”

The turbulence comes as education scholars are coming under attack from policymakers and practitioners. Here in California, for example, voters last spring disregarded the advice of most experts and overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure aimed at virtually eliminating bilingual education programs in the public schools.

But researchers are divided over what to do about their credibility problem or about poor-quality studies. While some scholars advocate setting standards for good research, others are wary.

“The things that make research significant are mostly things that can be understood after the fact,” said James Greeno, a Stanford University education professor. “The things that can be known in advance are so general that it doesn’t take a commission or an academy to sit down and say people ought to be attending to the evidence in their arguments. We all know that.”

Moreover, he said, delineating standards might discourage new methods and insights.

Walruses and Pups

The National Academy of Education, established in 1965, includes among its members many of the heavyweights in the world of education research: Howard Gardner, John Ogbu, Ann Brown, and Shirley Brice Heath, to name a few.

Its charter allows no more than 125 members. Would-be members do not learn they have been nominated unless they are accepted.

Reports by the group led in the early 1990’s, for example, to the expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally mandated tests given to nationally representative samples of students, and to the creation of an independent governing board to oversee the program.

But the academy members’ main task is handpicking the young researchers who might one day follow in their footsteps. Each year, the academy sifts through research proposals from postdoctoral students seeking money to carry out their studies.

From that group, the academy names fellows--this year there were 58--who get $45,000 stipends from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation and some gentle guidance from the masters at the annual meetings.

Ms. Lagemann, quoting one of her predecessors, likened the two groups to “the walruses and the young pups.”

While more than half the “walruses” at the meeting this month were white American males, the “pups” hailed from more diverse backgrounds. They included women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and students from around the globe. Their studies, nervously presented before academy members, covered everything from the literary sophistication of “gangsta” graffiti to education reform in the Peruvian Amazon region.

The academy itself is trying to shed its rather shadowy image. The group has set up a commission, for example, to advise the National Education Research Policy and Priorities Board, a federally appointed body that advises the U.S. Department of Education’s research branch.

To take a stab at its second charge, the research-improvement commission plans to publish another volume next year. To be co-written by Ms. Lagemann and Lee S. Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the book will set down ways to ensure research quality in each of the disciplines that are loosely amalgamated under the education research umbrella.

“Whether we’ll be able to say something worth saying that could build any consensus is an open question,” said Ms. Lagemann.

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