The Education Research We Need?
Think Tanks Just Aren't Keeping Pace with the Professional Education Research Community

Resident Scholar Frederick M. Hess
Resident Scholar Frederick M. Hess
As policymakers wrestle with No Child Left Behind's reauthorization and educators struggle to comply with its spirit, both communities are increasingly serious about seeking out rigorous and useful research. But education professors Kevin Welner and Alex Molnar fretted in a recent Education Week back-pager that policymakers are turning to "slickly produced" research produced by "ideologically driven" think tanks rather than studies being conducted and sanctioned by the nation's professional education research community.

Those eager to familiarize themselves more broadly with "peer-reviewed" education scholarship had an exceptional opportunity earlier this month in Chicago when the American Educational Research Association (AERA) gathered for its annual conference. More than 12,000 scholars convened to consider a wealth of papers and analyses that have been vetted and approved by their peers.

AERA offered the chance for academics to demonstrate why, as Welner and Molnar have suggested, policymakers would be well-advised to look to them to tackle "significant research questions" with "original and important work." The degree to which researchers succeeded at this task depends on just what sort of studies policymakers were seeking.

For instance, those policymakers interested in Creolist perspectives on social change, the hegemony of standard English, and the current status of the Whig party, doubtless flocked to the session featuring the research "Beyond the Anglicist and the Creolist Debate and Toward Social Change," "The Ebonics Phenomenon, Language Planning, and the Hegemony of Standard English," and "'The Whig Party Don't Exist in My Hood': Knowledge, Reality, and Education in the Hip-Hop Nation."

Now, while we may all be immigrants to the hip-hop nation, those who are interested in the import of immigration for instruction or assessment will surely want to catch the session "Asserting Silenced Voices in Policy Debates Over (Im)migrants and (Im)migration," featuring analyses like "Exposing Contradictions: Students 'Talk Back' to Discourses on (Im)migration" and "Immigrant Identity and Racial Formations: A LatCrit Theoretical Analysis Case Study."

Offering a rather different take on immigration was the provocatively titled session "Race and Space in Education" with its undertones of bilingual education on Mars and featuring research such as "Citizenship, Migration, and Space" and "Education Policy, Space, and the 'Colonial Present.'" (Admittedly, we're still not entirely sure just what the "colonial present" is--though we're pretty confident that it does not involve beribboned pewter mugs from Williamsburg.)

Those more focused on professional development could check out the session "Spirituality and Education," in which professors and doctoral students at honest-to-goodness colleges and universities presented research on "Accessing the Wisdom of Spirit as Professional Development," "Anti-racist Education, Critical Race Theory, and 'Respiritualization,'" and "Peace in Every Breath: College Students Surprise Themselves as They Defuse Their Anger."

Meanwhile, the session "Stop Moving My What?! Critical and Reflective Thinking in Self-Study" provided a can't-miss opportunity for policymakers wrestling with the educational challenges of self-study. Some attendees fretted that they might not grasp the finer points of the featured paper "'Stop Moving My Cheese!' Scurrying Through a Maze of Challenges in Developing Reflective Thinking of Preservice Teachers"; fortunately, the "self-study practitioners" took care to demonstrate how data such as journal dialogues, portfolio artifacts, evaluations, and e-mail correspondence could be used to develop "inner skills of reflection."

Those willing to miss out on catching their cheese could attend "'Depending on How You Read It': The Trans-Contextualization of Pedagogies of Everyday Practice Across Urban Communities." Offering much more than glitzy "trans-contextualization of pedagogies," the research included probing examinations of elderly African-American bridge players and everyday pedagogies in papers, like "Identity, Positioning, Knowledge, and Rhetoric in the Pedagogical Practices of Elderly African-American Bridge Players" and "Everyday Pedagogies in Basketball, Track, and Dominoes: Culture, Identity, and Opportunities for Competence."

Those seeking something a little less academic were advised not to miss the annual Fireside Chat with Arizona State University's associate director for the School of Theatre and Film on his new book, Ethnodrama: An Anthology of Reality Theatre. The session was touted for its exploration of "the emerging field of arts-based research called Ethnodrama, the result of research in the forms of case studies and auto-ethnography combined with the Theatre Arts."

We're still not entirely clear as to what ethnodrama entails, but it sure seemed to be on display in the session on "Asset-Based Research on Native Peoples," featuring the study "The Educational Lives of Alaska Native Alumni of the University of Alaska-Anchorage." To be frank, not a few observers were distraught at the neglect shown toward the educational lives of Alaska Native alums of other Alaskan colleges, such as UA-Fairbanks. Troubled by such omissions, some opted to pair that panel with the session on "Centering the Overlooked Issues in Multicultural Teacher Education: AIDS, Accent, Adoption, (Dis)Ability, and Poverty."

To be sure, there was also more pedestrian work on teacher quality, instruction, assessment, and so forth. But the unfortunate truth is that such work constituted but a small portion of the scholarship on display. Worth noting, and perhaps providing a disheartening bit of context, is that all of the above was drawn from one randomly selected day of the conference (April 10, for those who are curious). That's why this account omits sessions such as "The Subversive Media Practice of Decolonization: The Testimonial and Pedagogical Work of Aboriginal Women Filmmakers" and "The Memory of Touching: Embodied Perception in Contemporary Video Art."

If their work is to command the respect and attention it deserves, serious education scholars need to invest more energy in policing the work that enjoys their imprimatur. So long as it is swamped by sophistic(ated) parentheses and "Creolist perspectives," it's going to be an uphill struggle for quality education research to have the impact it seeks or deserves.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. Francesca Lowe is an education researcher in Washington, DC.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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