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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Policy & Politics Opinion

What Do Leading Edu-Scholars Think About DEI, Reading, and Research?

Researchers weigh in on research, practice, and policy
By Rick Hess — April 01, 2024 3 min read
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In January, I ran the 2024 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, identifying 200 of the nation’s most influential education scholars. In recent years, I’ve followed up by reaching out to the Edu-Scholars with an informal query soliciting some thoughts and insight regarding research, practice, and policy. As always, I found the results instructive and thought I’d share a few highlights.

I asked about the most illuminating academic article they’d read on education last year and the study that had the biggest impact over the past decade. Raj Chetty’s work was the most commonly mentioned; other responses mostly alluded to broad themes, like research on teacher labor markets and reading. Notably, when asked what research had the biggest impact on the past decade, the most common answer was: “nothing.” This either reflects admirable humility on the part of the researchers or constitutes a rather damning indictment of the educational research enterprise today (or perhaps a bit of each).

Asked what advice they might provide to young researchers, one scholar offered a particularly striking bit of advice: “Follow the truth—there are too many ideologues out there and you’ll stand out just by being an honest broker.” That resonates with me. As I’ve noted to Pedro Noguera, our current level of distrust has profound consequences: “People are reluctant to reach out in good faith because they fear that, at best, they’ll be wasting their time and, at worst, they’ll be attacked or vilified.” Pedro and I have called for combating that tendency by extending each other the benefit of the doubt, dealing in good faith, avoiding “whataboutism,” and engaging deliberately and reflectively. “Following the truth” is a terrific addition to that list.

In light of the broiling debates around diversity in education, I asked the Edu-Scholars whether they supported or opposed colleges requiring DEI statements for hiring and promotion. Most respondents endorse the use of DEI statements in principle but say they have concerns about how those have been implemented. Smaller numbers of scholars wholeheartedly endorsed or flatly opposed DEI requirements. Perhaps the modal take was offered by the scholar who wrote, “I support DEI. But the statements are too vague. Plus, stop deferring to a statement. We already get faculty members’ CV, syllabi, and course evaluations. Take some time to actually review those materials. That way, we can see if they actually do work that encourages DEI, not just a statement saying they do.” Articulating the concerns about DEI, one skeptic explained, “In my experience, DEI statements are tools primarily for screening people out of searches using vague criteria. Most colleges don’t require similar statements on other important aspects of higher education, so requiring them implicitly puts DEI on a pedestal as the most important thing we do.”

I also asked the Edu-Scholars about their views on state efforts to adopt “science of reading” laws. Asked whether they supported or opposed these, respondents were pretty evenly split. Several noted either this isn’t their area of expertise or that their views depend on the particulars of the law. Supporters tended to emphasize concerns about academic achievement and current practices, while skeptics pointed to the need for educators to have discretion to address student needs and circumstances. Some of the particular takes were telling. A nominally supportive scholar wryly wrote of the laws, “I support them but will educators implement them? Doubt it.” One skeptic explained, “I just don’t think this is something that state governments should mandate. And I worry about establishing new loyalty oaths around a hotly contested subject!”

I find this annual exercise enlightening, if only to resurface familiar themes and provide a temperature check on where the education professoriate stands. It can be useful to recognize that those regarded as education oracles can be as conflicted and uncertain as the rest of us.

Please note that answers were lightly edited for grammar and spelling.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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