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School & District Management Opinion

Academics Can’t Shy Away From Public Role

By Robert C. Pianta — January 09, 2015 3 min read
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Education Week Commentary asked three education school deans the following question: How Does an Edu-Scholar Influence K-12 Policy? Below is a response from the University of Virginia’s Robert C. Pianta.
Read more: Scholars’ Findings Must Be Part of K-12 Conversation | Focus Research on K-12 Practice Needs

Education happens in school hallways and classrooms, in district offices and government agencies, at board meetings and in living rooms. These are the laboratories of education scholarship. To remain relevant in practice and policy, university faculty members must engage with the people who inhabit these spaces.

Education schools and their faculties are the focus of withering criticism for their lack of relevance to solving the K-12 challenges in contemporary American life. Faculty members are responsible for educator-preparation programs that put too much emphasis on theory and not enough on fostering essential skills. Scholarship is derided for filling journals no one reads with papers that describe research no practitioner could find useful in daily practices or no policymaker could use as a rational basis for investing millions of dollars. Although perhaps an overstatement of the disconnect, among most opinion leaders, the cultural and political narrative concerning education schools is one of irrelevance. From my perspective, engagement in the public debate not only replaces these misconceptions; it also has the potential to enable real traction on problems of great intransigence.

The education ideas marketplace is cacophonous, and it is hard to see how evidence fits. Everyone has an opinion, typically informed more by personal experience than by facts or appreciation of scale. In the absence of standards for utility and impact, district leaders have to make multimillion-dollar choices on the basis of sales pitches. The demand for a scholarly and informed perspective in these debates and decisions is staggering, but not easy to address.

I am afraid that too often the rituals and routines of the academy have reified scholarship and public engagement as distinct categories of activity. The training of young scholars focuses on getting the methods right more than it does on thinking through the nuances of translating research with integrity. The academy too often reduces engagement in its many forms to advocacy, devaluing efforts of faculty to genuinely enter public debate as scholars. Technology is forcefully eroding and reshaping this arms’ length stance as faculty members’ scholarly products appear in open access outlets, are disseminated in social media, and reproduced and distributed by secondary sources. As the print journal dissolves as the primary medium for the curation and transmission of scholarly activity, academics—and the academy itself—must come to grips with the intellectual value and impact of work conveyed in radically different forms.

And at operational levels, there is movement in bridging the divide between the academy and the places where education happens. Funders of scholarship—foundations, federal agencies—now promote and target work that fosters and exploits partnerships between scholars and school districts. It is increasingly clear that the academy holds most of the capacity to exploit the use of states’ longitudinal-data systems for actionable intelligence to address problems of practice or policy. Education schools are partnering with the private sector on a range of challenges related to commercialization and scale. These moves reflect mutual interests in relevance and impact.

Like it or not, the work of education school faculties is situated in the public square. The faculty at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education has spent the past year wrestling with what it means to produce work that matters. By no means have we resolved that question. But our annual reporting system this year includes activities that are all about engagement with the public. We recognize junior faculty need support when establishing research partnerships with states or districts. And we are sorting out what it means to partner with the private sector.

Our work in the academy should engage the public square. To back away would be to cede influence in an even larger effort: to advance the understanding of the American public to make informed decisions about the education of its citizenry. The relevance of education schools may even hang in the balance. And as higher education struggles generally to redefine its role in society, the capacity of education school faculty to engage with stakeholders outside of our institutional walls may set an example for other institutions to follow.

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Engage in the K-12 Public Debate

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