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Scholars Aren’t Studying the Questions Education Leaders Care About Most (Opinion)

A few years ago, University of Southern California ed. school dean Pedro Noguera and I wrote a book called A Search for Common Ground. The practical work of bridging divides has drawn pretty extensive interest from state leaders, school systems, advocates, and the like. But you know where there’s been zero interest? From education researchers and schools of education.

That came to mind as I prepared this year’s RHSU Edu-Scholar rankings of the nation’s most influential education scholars. I found myself noodling on the disconnect between education’s doers and university-based researchers. For instance, even among these scholars who had an outsized public influence in 2023, it was tough to find many immersed in the questions that loom largest when I talk to state leaders or superintendents.

That’s a problem in a field that (unlike, say, math or poetry) is explicitly charged with being useful to practitioners and policymakers. That gap isn’t new (see Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands from 1953 for a sense of how far back this goes), but I fear it’s been getting worse. I say this as someone who’s had front-row seats, teaching at a half-dozen universities, publishing When Research Matters, compiling the Edu-Scholar rankings for more than a decade, convening AEI’s K-12 Working Group for nearly two decades, and toiling at the intersection of research and policy since the last century.

When I talk to K–12 officials, the top-of-mind issue may be the looming expiration of federal pandemic aid. Yet, questions about where those funds have gone, whether they’ve made a difference, and how to handle the requisite cuts just aren’t a focus for more than two or three of the 200 Edu-Scholars. While there are lots of education economists and finance specialists, they gravitate to analyses that feature causal claims, racial disparities, and for which timeliness isn’t a concern. This work yields some interesting results but ones which tend to be more useful for New York Times think pieces than real-world decisionmaking.

Educators and policymakers want guidance on artificial intelligence and the use of smartphones in schools. Yet, there’s no one on the Edu-Scholar list who studies these topics (and, again, really no more than a couple scholars who can be said to focus on education technology). Ed tech is, of course, a maddening thing to study. There’s little or no good data, and the field evolves at a crazy pace. But, absent good research, practitioners and policymakers in search of insight have no choice but to rely on self-interested industry figures and consultants of sometimes suspect provenance.

Then there are the heated debates around gender, race, and politicized curricula. These tend to turn on a crucial empirical claim: Right-wingers insist that classrooms are rife with progressive politicking and left-wingers that such claims are nonsense. Who’s correct? We don’t know, and there’s no research to help sort fact from fiction. Again, I get the challenges. Obtaining access to schools for this kind of research is really difficult, and actually conducting it is even more daunting. Absent such information, though, the debate roars dumbly on, with all parties sure they’re right.

I could tell similar tales about reading instruction, school discipline, chronic absenteeism, and much more. In each case, policymakers or district leaders have repeatedly told me that researchers just aren’t providing them with much that’s helpful. Many in the research community are prone to lament that policymakers and practitioners don’t heed their expertise. But I’ve found that those in and around K–12 schools are hungry for practical insight into what’s actually happening and what to do about it. In other words, there’s a hearty appetite for wisdom, descriptive data, and applied knowledge.

The problem? That’s not the path to success in education research today. The academy tends to reward esoteric econometrics and critical-theory jeremiads. A couple decades ago, the education academy had its share of quantheads and grand theorists but also far more room for scholars characterized by a practical, plain-spoken, observational bent (like Richard Elmore, Gerald Grant, Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, or Charles Payne). That kind of work was accessible, descriptive, and not especially political.

Today, elite journals rarely publish such work (it’s not sophisticated enough); there’s not much funding for it (it’s not what interests the fashionable set); and hiring committees tend to dismiss it (the scholars don’t mouth the proper shibboleths). This has had unfortunate consequences.

There are many reasons for the shift, including the ubiquity of powerful data tools and the way that social media and digital platforms have enabled “outsiders” to publish and promote their analyses (eroding the stature of scholars who do less reified work).

But I think two other, complementary dynamics are especially important. The ascendance of critical theory in education research means that key gatekeepers think topics like ESSER funding and AI are only important to the extent they’re examined through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And, as academe has become more ideologically homogeneous over time, those who may not be wholly in step with new orthodoxies have taken refuge behind increasingly elaborate methodological sophistication.

What can we do about this?

First off, there are efforts that have been designed to help on this count. Harvard University’s Strategic Data Project, UChicago’s Consortium on School Research, and the like embrace a healthy notion of “research-practice partnership.” These ventures are laudable, helping school systems analyze data and assess interventions. But they’re not quite what I have in mind. Such partnerships tend to be constrained by the formality of the relationship, frequently cumbersome bureaucratic processes, and a reliance on extant data systems. This isn’t a criticism of these efforts, just an observation of their limits.

What’s needed is a broader shift, one that’s more about culture than programming. It requires K–12 leaders, policymakers, and funders to make clear that they value education research that is timely and useful and to understand that this kind of work is tough, messy, and time-consuming.

When it comes to public universities, governing boards should be asking questions about what is and isn’t rewarded in hiring, granting tenure, and promotion. There’s a need for hard thinking about how to judge academic accomplishment, including how to credibly gauge educational utility and then accord more weight to it.

The nation’s state chiefs and superintendents should look to sponsor training and mentoring programs that place researchers (especially in their formative years) in settings where there’s a premium on speed, utility, and relevance.

One of the heartening things about the Edu-Scholar rankings is seeing how many thoughtful scholars are out there. I just wish more of them were more focused on the questions that educators and policymakers actually ask.

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