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Recognizing Influential Education Scholars: Why and How

By Rick Hess — January 09, 2015 3 min read
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Once again, as I’ve done annually since 2010 over at the Rick Hess Straight Up blog, I’ve compiled the Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings.

The 2015 RHSU rankings recognize 200 of the nation’s most influential education researchers, acknowledging those university-based academics who invest the time and effort to contribute to the public discourse in a way that registers. The exercise is useful because, while acclaimed physicists or philosophers may have an outsize impact whether or not their work ever registers beyond the ivory tower, the very nature of educational research is that it’s intended to have a public impact—on educational practice or policy.

The extraordinary public scholar excels in disciplinary scholarship, policy analysis and popular writing, convening and shepherding collaborations, providing incisive commentary, and speaking in the public square. The Rick Hess Straight Up rankings are composed of metrics that seek to reflect those qualities. They include measures of scholarly influence, number and popularity of books authored, presence in the general and education media, online impact, and more. The rankings include the top 150 finishers from the 2014 rankings, augmented by 50 at-large additions chosen by a selection committee of 31 accomplished scholars. (For more information on the selection committee, click here.)

RHSU 2015 Top 12 Junior Scholars

This table lists the most influential university scholars who have not yet received tenure, according to the Rick Hess Straight Up rankings. Given the premium placed on overall bodies of academic accomplishment, Mr. Hess says it is particularly impressive when junior academics are recognized.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Now, no one should overstate the precision of this exercise. It’s best to think of it like you think of attempts to rank quarterbacks, presidents, or mutual-fund managers. It’s a data-informed effort to spur discussion about which scholars are applying their knowledge and skills in a fashion that’s important, but too often overlooked.

After all, many faculty members tell me that they feel like they have little time to engage in the public square, few mechanisms for doing so, and little incentive to make the effort. Junior faculty, in particular, note the pressure to write for academic peers and to avoid saying things that might hurt their chances for tenure or promotion. Yet, it is junior faculty members who are doing some of the most intriguing and relevant new work, forging habits that can shape a career, and shaping the future of the profession. For that reason, as Karen Symms Gallagher of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education notes in one of three related Commentaries, there’s particular value in helping junior faculty engage constructively in the public square. (That’s why the accompanying table makes a special effort to recognize the dozen junior faculty who cracked this year’s Top 200.)

How Does an Edu-Scholar Influence K-12 Policy?

Education Week Commentary asked three education-school deans the following question: How Does an Edu-Scholar Influence K-12 Policy? Read their responses:

  • Scholars’ Findings Must Be Part of K-12 Conversation
  • Focus Research on K-12 Practice Needs
  • Academics Can’t Shy Away From Public Role

The consequence of university faculty members’ retreat to the cozy confines of the ivory tower is especially problematic on two counts. Today’s public debates are often driven by the most bombastic advocates, or those pundits with the most time to tweet and coin glib sound bites. At the same time, we’ve constructed an academic culture that has too often celebrated irrelevance and impenetrability as perverse badges of honor, rewarding professors for mastering jargon and the art of arcane ideological posturing.

The result of all this is less informed, less measured, and less constructive public debate. The Edu-Scholar Rankings are intended as one modest effort to help change that dynamic.

The rankings are meant to complement like-minded efforts in academe, of the kind that Robert C. Pianta is leading at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. And, of course, as the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s James E. Ryan notes, the expectation cannot simply be new burdens for faculty—and none of this should be read as an excuse to compromise the quality of research. (That’s why the rankings place such substantial weight on bodies of scholarly work.) The aim is to highlight researchers who are doing good research and also carrying that work into the public sphere, hopefully in a way that encourages a more robust appreciation of scholarly accomplishment.

RHSU 2015 Edu-Scholar Concentrations

This map shows the locations of the universities with four or more influential “edu-scholars,” according to the Rick Hess Straight Up rankings.

BRIC ARCHIVE

What we see from some of the nation’s most respected education school deans, like Karen Gallagher, Bob Pianta, and Jim Ryan, is a frank recognition of the challenges and an admirable interest in addressing them. Fifteen years ago, when I was a junior professor at a school of education, leaders were generally less inclined to see a need or to act on it. But changes in technology, publishing, policymaking, and education have conspired to alter that state of affairs.

What we need today are more universities where faculty members are valued for entering the public square, not as advocates, ideologues, or amateur pundits, but as learned individuals who make it a point to speak their truth, clearly and well. If these rankings help on that count, they’ve served their purpose.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as The 2015 Edu-Scholar Rankings

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