Scholars can find ourselves in turbulent waters when we speak out in public on controversial issues relating to education reform. I heard about this directly when, in doing research for my book Spin Cycle, I talked to researchers active in the debate over charter schools. Younger scholars worried that those with opposing views would wreak revenge on them by, for example, blackballing their grant and journal submissions under the cover of “peer review.” Seasoned and secure scholars worried about being drawn into making more simplistic and extreme statements than they felt comfortable with, believing that necessary to be heard above the noisy background of claim and counterclaim. As one researcher put it to me, “Once somebody else brings a knife to the fight, you have to bring a knife to the fight, too.”
The temptation can be strong to just say no, and lie low. It’s easy to do this. Journalists who reach out are typically on a tight deadline. If you don’t get back right away, you can sidestep the temptation to go public, and after that happens two or three times, your name will drift way down on journalists’ lists of whom to call.
As scholars, we have a lot to offer the public debate.
But there is another angle to keep in mind. The more public discourse about education becomes partisan, ideological, simplistic, and simple-minded, the greater the need becomes for at least some reasonable voices to be heard—voices that distill and accurately reflect what research has to say. Journalists can’t do it on their own; they often lack the background knowledge and expertise to see through the fog of researchers’ claims. Education advocacy organizations that are often called on to summarize research findings have agendas of their own, which can lead them to be selective or even deceptive about the studies they cite.
In the tense political environment of the run-up to the 2016 election, how does a scholar who focuses on education policy and politics contribute to public discourse in constructive ways?
Read the responses:
What’s needed are education scholars who are willing, at least on occasion, to join the conversation and keep characterizations of research from going wildly off base.
How can this be done constructively? I offer one caution and one wish. The caution is to avoid the temptation to work too hard to be pithy and dramatic out of the sense that it’s the only way to hold the interest of the journalist on the phone, have your studies read and your reputation known, or your tweets shared. Pithiness can pay off in the short run, but over the long term, when pursued at the expense of nuance, it erodes both your personal credibility and, more importantly, the credibility of the scholarly enterprise.
My wish is that we take seriously the obligation of faithfully conveying the nature of scholarship in all its messy dress. Researchers know that every study has methodological shortcomings; that “statistical” significance is not the same as “substantive” significance; that even the best studies leave most variance unexplained; and that policy solutions require far more than research findings alone. They require value judgments, administrative capacity, political will, and common sense. We need to be clear about the limitations of the research we describe.
As scholars, we have a lot to offer the public debate, but we’ll be more effective and true to our enterprise if we reflect the modesty, uncertainty, insufficiency, and open-ended nature of education research.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Own the ‘Messy Dress’ of Scholarship