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School & District Management Opinion

The Responsibility of Edu-Scholars in the Public Square

By Rick Hess — January 11, 2016 5 min read
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When I taught high school, I thought about schooling mostly in terms of my students, their parents, and my colleagues.

When I was a full-time professor, I thought in terms of my research projects, new research findings reported in scholarly outlets, and the courses I taught.

Now, more than a decade into my tenure at a Washington think tank, I find myself thinking in terms of policy principles, what the public thinks, and broad summaries of research.

Which of these is the right way to think about education?

It’s a trick question. They all are ... and there are many others besides. Parents, students, community leaders, journalists, and more all have their own legitimate, valuable perspectives.

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This robust pluralism is the very foundation of the American project. James Madison celebrated it in The Federalist Papers and regarded it as a bulwark of liberty. Our founders understood that the public square is enriched by competing views rooted in different values, experiences, and knowledge.

Scholars have an important role to play in that democratic cacophony, though far too few play it enthusiastically or well. This conviction is the genesis of the annual RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, which recognize 200 of the nation’s education scholars who contribute meaningfully to the public discourse.

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

Education Week Commentary asked three government and policy scholars the following question: 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 their responses:

Especially in a time of polarizing public debates, it’s easy for academics to feel tugged in one of two problematic directions.

One is to avoid venturing too far from the comfort of the ivory tower and to take refuge in a place where professors can write for the handful of other scholars in their academic subfields. This has all kinds of appeal. They can trust their audience is deeply versed in their narrow interests and will generally share their values and views. They don’t have to worry about being misinterpreted or forced to quarrel with advocates who get their information from blogs, or school board members who’ve never been subjected to peer review. Indeed, academics too often regard irrelevance and impenetrability as perverse badges of honor.

Alternatively, another kind of problem can result when academics do deign to step into the public square. In that case, scholars often feel impelled to present themselves as “experts” tasked with bringing the warm light of reason to the huddled masses. This conceit embodies three big errors. One, knowing stuff about debt loads, discipline rates, or reading and math scores doesn’t necessarily make one an expert in figuring out how to change programs, organizations, or human behavior. Two, analyzing spreadsheets or interviewing teachers provides a window into only a very small slice of the educational world—and that whole world matters when making real decisions. Three, prescriptions for policy or practice turn heavily on values, philosophy, and beliefs—and, when it comes to these, many things will weigh more heavily than a researcher’s expertise.

Which universities have the most Edu-Scholars?

This map shows the locations of the universities with four or more 2016 RHSU Edu-Scholars.

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Neither Ivory Tower Recluse nor Bringer of Truth is a fruitful view of the scholar’s role in a democratic, pluralistic nation. Rather, publicly minded scholars should aspire to engage with their fellow citizens and to share their specialized knowledge (while acknowledging that such knowledge is inevitably limited). I started the RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings in 2010 to celebrate and encourage precisely this type of engagement. I did this not because I’m eager to have professorial big shots smugly lecture parents or policymakers about how we ought to go about raising our children or governing our schools. Indeed, I’m wholly sympathetic to William F. Buckley’s oft-quoted admission that he’d “rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” That said, I think we’re the worse for it if those scholars are sharing their wisdom only in classrooms and coffee shops.

Public debates and decisions benefit when all of our talents are brought to the table. Academics’ great advantage lies in their knowledge, their opportunity to delve deep, and their remove from the day-to-day burdens of running schools or serving in office. Their perspective can provide invaluable ballast in debates otherwise driven by the most bombastic advocates or the pundits with the snarkiest tweets and sharpest sound bites. Equally important is that such engagement enables (and requires) academics to connect with and learn from their fellow citizens.

Who are the top 10 government and policy Edu-Scholars?

This table lists the most influential government and policy university scholars, according to the 2016 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings. For an explanation of how the scoring was conducted, click here.

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Ultimately, the RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings attempt to honor academics who engage the public and aim to make it easier for the academy to recognize them accordingly. The rankings are composed of metrics that gauge scholarly accomplishment, media presence, and more.

The rankings include the top 150 finishers from the past year, augmented by 50 “at-large” additions chosen by a selection committee of accomplished scholars. (What follows in the pages of Education Week, in addition to Commentaries from the president of the American Educational Research Association and two members of the 2016 RHSU selection committee, are a few snapshots of the rankings.) No one should overstate the precision of this exercise. It’s best to think of it as analogous to rankings of quarterbacks and mutual fund managers. It’s a data-informed effort to spur discussion on an important question.

Back when I was a full-time professor, I frequently chatted with colleagues who felt they had little opportunity or incentive to engage in the public square. Today, it strikes me that things have been gradually improving. When it comes to heated public deliberations about college access, quality, and cost, for instance, a slew of edu-scholars have been much in evidence. Individuals who show up prominently in the rankings—like Sarah Turner, Caroline Hoxby, Tom Bailey, Bridget Terry Long, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Sandy Baum, Richard Arum, and Susan Dynarski—have presented compelling data, offered proposals for policy and practice, penned influential books, and engaged in the messy give-and-take of struggling to improve policy and practice. They deserve to be commended for doing so.

We all benefit when universities encourage faculty members to enter the public square as knowledgeable professionals who strive to speak their truth clearly, constructively, and humbly. My hope is that these rankings might help on this count, even if just a little.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Edu-Scholars and the Public Square: What Is Our Responsibility?

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