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School & District Management Opinion

Public Engagement Is Essential to Scholarship

By Jeannie Oakes — January 12, 2016 3 min read
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Education policymaking must negotiate strongly held public perceptions and contested political terrain—factors usually far more influential than research findings. So even the most settled and trustworthy scholarly knowledge will not be persuasive unless due attention is also given to the beliefs and politics that shape and filter public discourse.

That’s what effective public scholars do when they bring education research out of the weeds of scholarly journals and into the public sphere.

How do they do this? First and foremost, they respect the rigors of knowledge production and the challenges of navigating public spaces as they venture into writing for online publications, sharing their work in blogs and webinars, speaking on cable-news outlets and talk radio, giving testimony at public hearings and in courthouses, taking meetings with elected officials, forging partnerships with community groups, delivering succinct real-time messaging on social media, and more. Outstanding scholarship is compelling only if it speaks to hearts and political interests, as well as to intellects. But compelling communication is trustworthy only if it reflects serious scholarship.

Compelling communication is trustworthy only if it reflects serious scholarship."

This takes more than good research and good messaging. Effective public scholars also nurture trusting and respectful relationships with policymakers and public actors. These are not one-way relationships, but reflexive: Policymakers and the public learn about reliable findings, researchers gain a broader perspective on their studies, new ideas are formulated, and old ones corrected. These broader perspectives, generally, help everyone avoid cherry-picked research meant to advance or discredit a particular policy (or research) agenda.

Despite the real difficulty of such public work, most scholars who study policy and practice are eager to do it. This ambition is neither new nor a product of today’s intense politicization of education. Nearly a century ago, John Dewey, himself a public intellectual, argued that a core responsibility of scholars is to engage democratically with “publics” in ways that raise awareness of social problems and that foster the democratic solving of those problems.

How Does an Edu-Scholar Participate in the Public Sphere?

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:

Despite the complexity and the clear legitimacy of such engagement, public scholars face substantial obstacles within the academy. Universities often characterize such work as “applied” (at best) or “service” and seldom afford it full recognition and legitimacy when making decisions about promotion and tenure. So, key to embracing this role is to persuade often-skeptical universities, colleagues, and funders to recognize work in the public sphere as an essential dimension of scholarship, including gaining access to knowledge and data otherwise invisible to untrusted eyes.

Because I am so convinced that such public work is central to education scholarship, I’ve made it the theme of my year as the president of the American Educational Research Association. Under the banner of “Public Scholarship to Educate Diverse Democracies,” this year’s annual AERA meeting will lift up this work. Policymakers and influencers, community leaders, educators, activists, and media representatives—many of whom don’t ordinarily attend or cover the annual meeting—will assemble in Washington this spring to discuss, among other issues, how research can enter public discourse and political debates effectively.

There are no guarantees that this convening, or these efforts, will penetrate a policy landscape rife with drama and contention. But, rather than shying away from it, I believe this is just the right time for education researchers, acting as public scholars, to contribute to what Dewey called the “hurly burly” of social policymaking.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Embrace the ‘Hurly Burly’

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