School & District Management Opinion

AERA Dispatch: Tuesday

By Eduwonkette — March 25, 2008 2 min read
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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.

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