School & District Management

The Skills Gap

By Debra Viadero — January 07, 2004 13 min read
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Has the time come for education schools to overhaul the way they train education researchers?

Researchers in education spend years at a time pondering what makes a good school or a good lesson. What they haven’t thought about as much is what makes a good researcher.

Does the job require extensive training in a wide range of research methods? Or is it better to become an expert in just one? Should a budding education researcher steep himself or herself in a particular discipline, such as psychology or sociology, or is it best to become a generalist? Is there a core of knowledge that every researcher in education ought to master?

There’s no consensus on the answers. But the questions are being weighed in national meetings, in foundation-driven efforts, and on campuses nationwide.

At the heart of all the efforts is a general desire to improve educational research by improving the preparation of the people who do it. Whether the criticism is that studies in the field are too few, too sloppy, or just not produced or packaged in a way that practitioners find usable, the thinking is that education schools, by and large, can do better.

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Read the accompanying profiles of researchers-in-training.

“Schools of education chronically permit to graduate students as researchers who have very poor research skills,” says David K. Cohen, an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It seems that any student who persists long enough can get a degree as a researcher.”

While a perennial issue in education, the topic has taken on new urgency as the federal government campaigns to transform education into an “evidence based” practice. With the developing What Works Clearinghouse and the No Child Left Behind Act, federal officials are putting a heavy emphasis on research that meets their definition of “scientifically based.”

“I believe that new researchers are not getting exposed to all the skills they need at the graduate level to do the kind of work we’re interested in funding,” says Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s principal research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences.

The question is: Are education schools up to the task?

Some say they are. The efforts to overhaul the training of education researchers come at a time when several national foundations are spearheading drives to reform a wide range of university doctoral programs. Some of the leaders of those efforts say doctoral programs in other disciplines have a lot to learn from the job that education schools are already doing—particularly when it comes to preparing doctoral students for professional careers outside of academia.

“What we take for granted in education is frequently what they’re trying to accomplish in other fields,” says Lee S. Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an organization based at Stanford University that is currently working with 56 universities to overhaul the doctoral education programs in a variety of subjects, including education.

But critics argue that schools and colleges of education have yet to really address demands for better-trained researchers.

“I haven’t seen any movement in our field to try to deal with it,” Cohen said in November at a meeting on the issue organized by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Science. “It troubles me deeply that so few of my colleagues seem to be taking it seriously.”

Diversity of Approaches

At this point, what the field knows is how much it doesn’t know about how to take a green graduate student and mold him or her into the kind of skilled, analytically minded investigator who can make a lasting contribution to the field.

The approaches vary from institution to institution and even within the same university. Researchers in education come out of programs in psychology, economics, history, anthropology, and many other disciplines, as well as education schools. Some have Ph.D.s. Some have Ed.D.s. Some call themselves qualitative researchers; others specialize in number-crunching, quantitative studies. Still others might carry around in their heads a full toolbox of research methodologies. Some have studied their disciplines or specialty areas in depth. Others might be primarily “educationists” whose exposure to other disciplinary theories and research methods has come primarily through the lens of the education school.

Federal surveys taken in 1999 and 2000 showed that half of doctoral students in education got no financial support from their universities.

“The only generalization we can make with validity is that the variation is so great we really can’t generalize,” says Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, the dean of the graduate school of education at Harvard University. “If there’s a lack of consensus about teacher education, there’s never been a discussion about educational research preparation.”

At the National Research Council meeting on the subject in November, for instance, no one had a clear handle on just how many researchers are potentially in the pipeline for education. Estimates ranged from 16 to 1,000, depending on the source.

“Nobody has any research data, which, I have to say, is a little appalling given that we’re all supposed to be research institutions,” Penelope L. Peterson, the dean of the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said in an interview.

The job of overhauling doctoral programs is a tough one for education schools because they face some special challenges—not the least of which are financial. On many university campuses, education schools are “cash cows” for other schools. That means that the university depends on them to draw large numbers of tuition-paying students who effectively help subsidize other programs.

In contrast, in many other disciplines—particularly in the sciences—promising young researchers often get paid to study. Universities give them stipends for research and offer them teaching assistantships and scholarships.

That happens less often for would- be education scholars. Federal surveys taken in 1999 and 2000, for example, showed that half the doctoral students in education got no financial support from their universities. In the social sciences, by contrast, the number was just 21 percent. And experts estimate the percentage is smaller still for the so-called hard sciences.

Whitehurst, who was a researcher in early-childhood education before joining the federal Education Department in 2001, says he turned down recruitment offers from education schools because they couldn’t provide the same financial support for his graduate students that he could find in psychology departments. There, students who worked with him received credit for their full tuition, plus stipends for assisting him.

“If there is to be a transformation for research training, it’s going to have to be in partnership with university leadership,” says Whitehurst, who is hoping to earmark $18 million in federal money over two years to underwrite new pre- and post-doctoral training programs for researchers interested in studying education.

The first $2 million of those grants went to the Washington-based American Psychological Association, which is coordinating the new postdoctoral fellowship programs to link beginning researchers with more experienced mentors.

Multiple Missions

Some institutions, such as the Rossier school of education at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, have sharply cut back on the number of Ph.D. candidates they accept so they can offer the kind of financial and academic support older students often need to undertake full-time study.

‘There's not a deep respect in this country for educational expertise, because everybody thinks they know how to do it.’

According to Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean at Rossier, the school dropped the number of entering doctoral students to just six this academic year, from 28 each year two years ago. All six, though, are getting research assistantships worth $25,000 each and full tuition breaks.

“You can’t do this on a part-time basis,” says Gallagher.

The lack of funding for education research has a lot to do with the inferior status that universities have traditionally accorded their education schools. It’s no accident, says Harvard’s Lagemann, that her school is on the “wrong” side of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Mass., far from the arts and sciences buildings in Harvard Yard. Its closest neighbor is the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which is the former all-female Radcliffe College.

“There’s not a deep respect in this country for educational expertise, because everybody thinks they know how to do it,” Lagemann says.

Plus, at the graduate level, education schools often have more to do than prepare the next generation of researchers. Most are also preparing doctoral students to become superintendents, administrators, and school psychologists, or to work for testing companies or think tanks. One result of those multiple missions, experts say, has been a kind of fuzziness and overlap between the Ed.D. degree, which is typically more practitioner-oriented, and the Ph.D., which is considered the more scholarly path.

Harvard, for instance, permits its education school to award only Ed.D. degrees, even though about half its doctoral students plan to pursue research careers, according to Lagemann.

Northwestern, which has no doctoral track for practitioners, offers only a Ph.D. That’s also the only option for doctoral candidates at Michigan State University’s school of education in East Lansing—an institution in which two- thirds to three-quarters of the students are former practitioners, and many plan to return to the field after they leave the university.

“The Ph.D. has a lot of cachet,” says David F. Labaree, an education scholar who was at Michigan State before moving to Stanford. “Michigan State had an Ed.D. on the books, but the requirements were indistinguishable from the Ph.D., so nobody took it, and they finally just canceled it.”

“It probably makes sense to clarify the difference between the professional doctorate and the research doctorate in more formal terms,” adds Labaree, whose book The Trouble with Education Schools is due out in the fall.

Labaree says faculty members at large public universities that take large numbers of former practitioners into their doctoral programs have another challenge: They have to sell the students coming out of the trenches on the idea that the researchers’ perspective is worth pursuing.

“The world view of teachers and researchers is rather different,” Labaree says. “In research, the issue is much more of trying to understand educational issues across contexts. Teachers tend to be leery of generalizing, because they come out of situations where the particulars are everything.”

One way to address the variability that characterizes so many doctoral programs in education, some experts say, may be to develop a common core of studies that all beginning researchers in the field should master.

“If education research is a profession, there must be some things in common that we all need to know and be able to do, and we need to figure out what those things are,” Lagemann says.

To introduce some common base of knowledge in her own school, Lagemann is piloting an educational foundations course this spring as a requirement for all doctoral students.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, some faculty members are also aiming to strengthen the required core of studies in their program so that cohorts of doctoral students are not only taking some of the same classes— they’re also taking them at the same time.

“One of the shortcomings of educational-research training is that it is too fragmented,” says Margaret A. Eisenhart, the University of Colorado professor who is heading up that effort, which the education school faculty was scheduled to vote on late last month. “We are hoping to find a way to get all our students participating in the same conversation about educational research.”

‘To understand the problems in education, you need to bring a full toolbox to bear on methodological programs.’

But the idea that all education schools might share a common core of coursework in training researchers is a tough sell to many other deans.

One is Northwestern’s Peterson. “Our institutions are all completely different,” she says, “and I think that’s our comparative advantage.”

If he had his way, Whitehurst of the Education Department says, doctoral programs for education researchers would be short on required courses and long on hands-on training and apprenticeships in the laboratories of more-experienced researchers.

Indeed, methods training is one of the central dilemmas that education schools face as they re-examine their programs. At some education schools, experts say, students don’t get a chance to try their hand at research until they begin their dissertations. At others, the apprenticeship begins almost as soon as students walk in the door and form ties with senior researchers.

Recognizing that some students are not getting the hands-on research experience they need, Michigan State, for one, created a research practicum, a required course that all Ph.D. students in education take so they can take part in a study from start to finish.

Requirements Vary

Questions also arise over what kinds of research methods students should learn and how deeply they should delve into them.

According to Eisenhart, who surveyed the field in preparation for the changes at the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduate education schools that U.S. News & World Report magazine ranked as the nation’s best require students to take at least one course in quantitative research methods and one in qualitative methods.

Beyond those schools, though, experts believe the requirements are much more variable. Professors at some education schools, for instance, eschew quantitative methodology altogether, those experts say.

“I believe from the anecdotes I hear that there’s often a schism between the qualitative or narrative mind-set and the quantitative mind-set, so you find students feeling they have to take sides,” Whitehurst says. “To understand the problems in education, you need to bring a full toolbox to bear on methodological programs.”

But is it best for students to get exposed to a wide range of research methods while specializing in one? Or should students have a deep working knowledge of the full range of techniques they can use?

“I think we have to admit that high levels of proficiency in multiple methods may not be an attainable goal,” says Felice Levine, the executive director of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.

To some extent, experts agree, the kinds of methods taught should go hand in hand with the disciplines under study. Economists, for example, tend to focus on quantitative methods. Anthropologists favor more ethnographies and other qualitative approaches.

‘We can't really solve these problems by tinkering. We have to go back and redesign from scratch.’

That is, in part, why some education schools are trying to improve their programs by forging closer ties with faculty members in other disciplines on their campuses. A school might, for instance, require students to earn a cognate or minor outside the school, or recruit professors from sociology, psychology, economics, and other disciplines to either team-teach classes or join the education school.

“If they want to do a first-rate job, it’s impossible for ed schools to do it by themselves,” argues Michael S. McPherson, the president of the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropy that has for years supported improvements in researcher- preparation programs. (The foundation also supports coverage of research in Education Week.)

“They just can’t have that kind of depth of talent,” McPherson adds.

Whatever improvement path the doctoral programs take, Shulman of the Carnegie Foundation told the National Research Council’s committee in November, the changes should be thorough.

“We can’t really solve these problems by tinkering,” he says. “We have to go back and redesign from scratch.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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