Law & Courts Opinion

How (and When) Researchers Should Speak Truth to Power

Four guidelines for academics who want to participate in heated education debates
By Pedro A. Noguera — January 16, 2018 2 min read

In many respects, the polarization that characterizes the national political climate has long been present in the debates over the direction of public education, which took a particularly rancorous turn with the enactment of No Child Left Behind 16 years ago. Fierce conflicts over the expansion of charter schools, school closures, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation, and the merits of the common core have been common in communities across the country. Unlike the current political debates over immigration, taxes, and healthcare, which typically pit Republicans against Democrats, the fault lines in these long-running conflicts over education have frequently put leaders in the Democratic Party against constituencies that are typically regarded as a stable part of their base, namely teachers’ unions and parents and activists in low-income communities of color.

Not surprisingly, some academics (myself included) have chosen to weigh in on these education conflicts. Some have participated actively out of a sense of moral obligation because the research they have done has a direct bearing on the issues under debate. Others have done so because of their close political or ideological alignment to one side or the other. Most do quickly learn that becoming embroiled in such heated debates, especially when the stakes are high, always comes with risks to reputation, and in some cases, even job security.

Commentary Collection


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.

Read more from the collection.

Having participated in some of these battles over the years, I have arrived at an understanding about how and when to intervene in the debate through our scholarship and writing. Here are criteria that I have found helpful:

1) Avoid calling upon others to take stands that you are not taking yourself. For example, although I have been critical of high-stakes testing for many years, I have never encouraged parents to “opt out.” I feel that this is a decision that each parent must make on their own, and while I feel it is appropriate to explain the merits and drawbacks associated with high-stakes testing, I draw the line at telling parents what to do with their children.

2) Only enter conflicts in which you have a knowledgeable position that can be supported by research. This may seem like an obvious rule of thumb, but I have seen many scholars drawn into debates where they lack the expertise to offer well-reasoned positions. Invariably, their reputations are sullied when it turns out they can’t effectively defend a position they have taken.

3) Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the complexity of an issue even if it angers some people who want you to declare your allegiance to their position. For example, I have been asked repeatedly to weigh-in on the debate over charters and single-gender schools. My answer has consistently been that some are good, some are not, and there’s no evidence to suggest that expanding either will lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes.

4) Don’t be afraid of speaking truth to power. If you are confident about your position on an issue, don’t be afraid of speaking out or writing on the issue. Even if your position may be at odds with the position of powerful political or economic interest groups, you shouldn’t hesitate to speak for the interests of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Sometimes, silence is a form of complicity.

Related Tags:

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as How to Decide When Your Voice Is Necessary


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Some Takeaways for Educators in Supreme Court Rulings on Obamacare, Religious Liberties
The justices rejected a challenge to Obamacare on standing grounds while ruling narrowly in a case involving foster care in Philadelphia.
6 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts The Opioid Crisis Hit Schools Hard. Now They Want Drug Companies to Pay Up
School districts have collectively spent at least $127 billion on services for students affected by opioid addiction, recent court filings say.
12 min read
An arrangement of Oxycodone pills in New York, pictured on Aug. 29, 2018. A new study shoots down the notion that medical marijuana laws can prevent opioid overdose deaths. Chelsea Shover of Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues reported the findings Monday, June 10, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The painkiller Oxycodone is among the opioids implicated in a health crisis that has school districts joining with states and municipalities in seeking damages from drug manufacturers.
Mark Lennihan/AP
Law & Courts High Court Asks Biden Administration Views on Harvard Affirmative Action in Admissions
Some had expected U.S. Supreme Court justices to jump at the chance to reconsider the practices in education, but that's delayed for now.
3 min read
In this Nov. 10, 2020 photo the sun rises behind the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court seemed concerned Tuesday, Dec. 1, about the impact of siding with food giants Nestle and Cargill and ending a lawsuit that claims they knowingly bought cocoa beans from farms in Africa that used child slave labor. The court was hearing arguments in the case by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. Supreme Court is still weighing whether to hear a case challenging Harvard University's race-conscious admissions policies.
Alex Brandon/AP
Law & Courts If Critical Race Theory Is Banned, Are Teachers Protected by the First Amendment?
Bills to rein in how race and other controversial topics are taught have thrust K-12 teachers into a thicket of free speech issues.
10 min read
Image shows a teacher in a classroom.