Law & Courts Opinion

Four Prerequisites for a Productive Education Debate

In our hyperpolarized political environment, education scholars should weigh in judiciously
By Patrick J. Wolf — January 16, 2018 3 min read
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Policy scholars have an obligation to speak truth to power. The current hyperpolarized political environment makes it even more important that scholars who focus on education weigh in with their analyses and opinions regarding the vital policy questions of the day—such as student testing, teacher evaluation, and school choice. Some approaches to joining the public discussion are better than others. Education scholars who remember the following sound practices will make more valuable contributions without tarnishing their own or their institution’s reputation:

1) Stick mainly to the facts. Policy facts require some interpretation regarding such things as the size of changes or the importance of context, but the closer we stay to verifiable facts, the greater our impact and the safer our scholarly reputation. For example, controversy has swirled over whether private, public charter, or traditional public schools increase racial stratification, which occurs when the racial makeup of a school’s student population differs from that of the local community because of families’ independent schooling choices.

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In this special collection of Commentary essays, Frederick M. Hess and four education scholars discuss the pros and cons for academics who want to wade into public debate.

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While some scholars have focused on whether school choice could increase stratification, it’s more responsible to explain why the effects of such widespread policies are inherently context-dependent. To do so is a heavier lift than making bold claims, but it contributes more value to the policy discussion.

2) Get the facts right. Our reputations as scholars depend greatly on our grasp of the field’s basic facts. Ranked Edu-Scholar Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University, Sacramento, gave a talk at a civil rights forum in Minneapolis last November. According to The 74, Vasquez Heilig said research by Stanford University’s CREDO had determined that public charter schools negatively affect the achievement of “black and brown” students. Beth Hawkins, the astute senior writer at The 74 who attended the event, pointed out a few weeks later in her story that the CREDO findings were the opposite of what Vasquez Heilig had claimed. Mischaracterizing research in such clear and obvious ways is a recipe for disaster for any scholar. We need to get the basic facts underlying our arguments correct if we are to make meaningful contributions to public discourse.

3) Keep your story straight. When I present at policy gatherings, the organizers often ask if they can share my slides with attendees and on their website. I always say yes, because I tell the same story about the research surrounding school choice to whichever audience I am speaking. Whether testifying before a U.S. Senate Committee, presenting a paper at an academic conference, or speaking at a school choice policy summit, I characterize the research evidence similarly across the board. As scholars, we have an obligation to avoid micro-targeting our message by altering its content and meaning to please different audiences. We need to provide more technical information at academic conferences than in legislative testimony, but the substance of our claims must be consistent.

4) Match the medium to the message and not vice versa. Any reliable presentation of scholarly evidence regarding a study or body of work will involve a substantial amount of detail and nuance. That means that scholarly disputes cannot be resolved on Twitter, even with the expanded 280-character format. We should use Twitter to say, “Hey, look at this!” or to offer the occasional quip. If we include claims in our tweets, we should attach a more detailed news story or scholarly report to back them up. When we misuse Twitter to criticize other scholars or policy advocates or to make sweeping generalizations, it becomes antisocial media.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Four Sound Practices for Public Debate


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