How Education Schools Can Take Back Their Role in Policy

Brian Taylor

June 02, 2011

In recent years, education schools have been marginalized in the national education-policy debates. On the teaching side, they have been edged from their traditional central place by alternative training programs for teachers, principals, and district leaders. Most recently, education schools have been displaced by philanthropic and for-profit businesses that have become prominent players in an enterprise previously shaped by educators. Since education has become front-page news, the dominance of education schools in the field of education research has also been challenged by private research organizations and by renewed interest in education among scholars in academic disciplines such as economics and political science.

The marginalization of education schools has been partly based on legitimate criticisms about the weakness of rigor and training, and the narrowness of ideas, at some schools.

But the new, nonacademic actors on the education-policy scene bring their own set of limitations. While the private research organizations and discipline-based analysts bring to bear sophisticated techniques for modeling, quantitative analysis, and conducting randomized field trials, many lack and are seemingly indifferent to substantive, historical, institutional, and practical knowledge about important developments and on-the-ground realities in schooling and education. Some of the loudest voices in education reform declare teaching to be the linchpin for educational achievement while simultaneously seeming to disparage insights and input from teachers and education scholars with years of practice in the field.

There seems to be more than a bit of ideological and partisan maneuvering underlying the battles over what constitutes good educational research. Declaring themselves to be the only true reformers, critics of the status quo accuse traditional insider groups—teacher unions, education schools, affluent parents who use calls for local control as a weapon to stave off equity-oriented reforms—of relying on tradition, comfort, and experience to justify their calls to keep things the way they are.

Reformers justifiably point out that traditional insider groups are not, in most cases, using formally tested, evidence-based research to make their case for maintaining the status quo. Some reformers score political points by characterizing their opponents as modern-day Luddites reflexively battling against new ways of doing their jobs.

Also key to the current debate is a broad reinterpretation of what constitutes relevant expertise. For most of the 20th century, the evolution of systems for public-education governance and delivery was driven by a commitment to put key decisions in the hands of presumed experts. Until recently, the expertise that mattered emphasized knowledge of cognitive development, curriculum, pedagogy, and the intricacies of instruction often grounded in classroom experience.

It is precisely those perspectives that are missing from much of the current debate about education policy.

What counts as expertise has shifted to mastery of management, cost-benefit calculations, multivariate analysis of large data sets, value-added assessments of teacher effectiveness, and randomized field trials more common in medical and labor research.

The new reformers have raised the priority and status of education with their energy, high expectations, resources, and sharper-edged research tools, making the profession more attractive to many and boosting education reform to greater prominence on the public agenda. And the near-monopoly of the traditional education insiders was unhealthy when it encouraged complacency and discouraged responsiveness to the legitimate concerns of outsiders, including concerns expressed by members of less-advantaged communities, by elected officials with broader mandates than protecting education spending, by concerned civic leaders and parents, and by educational entrepreneurs with challenging ideas.

But in the interest of democratically guided and knowledge-based policy, it is equally unhealthy if those with a deep understanding of education and learning are effectively sidelined in the public debate.

In these increasingly heated and partisan debates, education schools—particularly those connected to research universities—can inform and mediate. Graduate schools of education at research universities have deep experience in preparing teachers for the classroom. These institutions understand the intricacies of curriculum development and test construction, and conduct basic and applied research in cognitive development and the ways that mental, physical, and public health intersect with the learning process.

Unhinging education policy from education expertise risks generating new types of failures that will fritter away the current enthusiasm for reform in a destructive cycle of disappointing outcomes, unintended consequences, and political backlash.

One example is in the area of teacher assessment, where promising techniques for determining how much individual teachers contribute to their students' learning are being prematurely fast-tracked into policy mandates and the public release of data that are poorly understood. It is reasonable to consider whether and how teachers' tenure and pay might be more closely tied to their students' learning. But informed deliberation and authoritative action demands rigorous, independent study of a host of important questions:

  • Do assessments accurately sample the range of learning outcomes the curriculum deems important?
  • Are the tests and proficiency cutoffs reliable over time and place?
  • Do the characteristics of the rest of the school and of the surrounding community make techniques that work in one classroom backfire in a different setting?

Those are complex questions that cannot be answered simply by manipulating available measures without understanding what goes into the measures, and what factors define the political, fiscal, and social contexts in which any new assessment system would operate.

Well-meaning reformers argue for putting the policies in place and then adjusting as we learn more, and proactive pragmatism of that nature can sometimes make sense. But hasty and ill-considered efforts to get something—anything—into place are just as likely to produce high-profile failures: good teachers driven out of the profession by bad data or the faulty analysis of that data; adoption of a curriculum driven less by consideration of what knowledge is valuable than by what is easier or cheaper to measure; energy diverted to vitriolic political battles while other promising initiatives are overshadowed.

If education experts are going to reassert their authority and influence, they have to do more than circle the wagons. They need to master the tools of contemporary policy analysis and then tie them to their richer base of knowledge and craft. They need to leap academic silos and engage in creative, cross-disciplinary research that takes into account the many varied, sometimes subtle ways in which education works or doesn't work for students. They must pay attention to what happens inside schools and classrooms, but they must also attend very seriously to ways in which broader social, economic, and policy forces reinforce and constrain schools and independently affect learning wherever it occurs.

It is against this backdrop that Teachers College, Columbia University, has assembled its faculty members who study education policy from various vantage points to create a new department of education policy and social analysis. The new department will combine its own teaching and research with a mission to catalyze, distill, and bring greater visibility to the work of researchers across the institution.

The new department will offer doctoral and master's-level courses in three areas with close ties to academic disciplines: economics and education, politics and education, and sociology and education. It will also serve as a locus of rigorous, interdisciplinary teaching and research that will draw from knowledge in other disciplines, such as psychology and cognitive development.

In taking on this challenge, we are not pretending that it will be easy to meld sophisticated tools of analysis, scholarly disciplines, and substantive knowledge related to learning and instruction. The wisdom of generating such an intellectual brew has been apparent to many for quite a long time. Well-meaning efforts have foundered, less because these various perspectives are fundamentally inconsistent and cannot be reconciled than because organizational and financial pressures within academia, politics, and schools pull stakeholders into discrete camps characterized by distinct cultures, political leanings, and even mutual suspicion.

We at Teachers College are convinced that robust, interdisciplinary research can help mediate the competing interests of teachers and their unions, principals, policy makers, politicians, and parents by subjecting new ideas, new products, and new organizational structures to the rigors of independent, credible research.

Graduate schools of education tied to research universities are uniquely poised to do this. They can contribute research on how children and adults learn best and what makes a good teacher, examined through many different disciplinary lenses—cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and, yes, economics, business, and even medicine, nutrition, and game technology.

Our graduate schools cannot do it alone, but they can help in critical ways to point the way to what works, and back up their arguments with evidence and ideas that make sense to those charged with putting them into practice.

In creating this new department, Teachers College is declaring its readiness to take a leadership role. The time is now for academic research institutions to take up the challenge.

Jeffrey R. Henig is a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and chairman elect of the new department of education policy and social analysis.