TC's Henig Urges Scholars to Speak -- with Nuance and Candor | Teachers College Columbia University

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Own the 'Messy Dress' of Scholarship

 

Scholars can find ourselves in turbulent waters when we speak out in public on controversial issues relating to education reform. I heard about this directly when, in doing research for my book Spin Cycle, I talked to researchers active in the debate over charter schools. Younger scholars worried that those with opposing views would wreak revenge on them by, for example, blackballing their grant and journal submissions under the cover of “peer review.” Seasoned and secure scholars worried about being drawn into making more simplistic and extreme statements than they felt comfortable with, believing that necessary to be heard above the noisy background of claim and counterclaim. As one researcher put it to me, “Once somebody else brings a knife to the fight, you have to bring a knife to the fight, too.”

The temptation can be strong to just say no, and lie low. It’s easy to do this. Journalists are typically on a tight deadline. If you don’t call back right away, you can sidestep the temptation to go public, and after that happens two or three times, your name will drift way down on journalists’ lists of whom to call.

But there is another angle to keep in mind. The more public discourse about education becomes partisan, ideological, simplistic and simple-minded, the greater the need becomes for at least some reasonable voices to be heard – voices that distill and accurately reflect what research has to say. Journalists can’t do it on their own; they often lack the background knowledge and expertise to see through the fog of researchers’ claims. Education advocacy organizations that are often called on to summarize research findings have agendas of their own, which can lead them to be selective or even deceptive about the studies they cite.

What’s needed are education scholars who are willing, at least on occasion, to join the conversation and keep characterizations of research from going wildly off base.

How can this be done constructively? I offer one caution and one wish. The caution is to avoid the temptation to work too hard to be pithy and dramatic out of the sense that it’s the only way to hold the interest of the journalist on the phone, have your studies read and your reputation known, or your tweets shared. Pithiness can pay off in the short run, but over the long term, when pursued at the expense of nuance, it erodes both your personal credibility and, more importantly, the credibility of the scholarly enterprise.

My wish is that we take seriously the obligation of faithfully conveying the nature of scholarship in all its messy dress. Researchers know that every study has methodological shortcomings, that “statistical” significance is not the same as “substantive” significance; that even the best studies leave most variance unexplained; and that policy solutions require far more than research findings alone. They require value judgments, administrative capacity, political will, and common sense. We need to be clear about the limitations of the research we describe.

As scholars, we have a lot to offer the public debate, but we’ll be more effective and true to our enterprise if we reflect the modesty, uncertainty, insufficiency, and open-ended nature of education research.

Jeffrey R. Henig is Professor of Political Science & Education at Teachers College. He is the author of Spin Cycle: How Research is Used in Policy Debates (Russell Sage Foundation, 2009), and co-editor with Frederick M. Hess of The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform, which was published last month by Harvard Education Press.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

 

Published Tuesday, Jan 12, 2016

Jeffrey R. Henig
Jeffrey R. Henig, Professor of Political Science & Education

 

Scholars can find ourselves in turbulent waters when we speak out in public on controversial issues relating to education reform. I heard about this directly when, in doing research for my book Spin Cycle, I talked to researchers active in the debate over charter schools. Younger scholars worried that those with opposing views would wreak revenge on them by, for example, blackballing their grant and journal submissions under the cover of “peer review.” Seasoned and secure scholars worried about being drawn into making more simplistic and extreme statements than they felt comfortable with, believing that necessary to be heard above the noisy background of claim and counterclaim. As one researcher put it to me, “Once somebody else brings a knife to the fight, you have to bring a knife to the fight, too.”

The temptation can be strong to just say no, and lie low. It’s easy to do this. Journalists are typically on a tight deadline. If you don’t call back right away, you can sidestep the temptation to go public, and after that happens two or three times, your name will drift way down on journalists’ lists of whom to call.

But there is another angle to keep in mind. The more public discourse about education becomes partisan, ideological, simplistic and simple-minded, the greater the need becomes for at least some reasonable voices to be heard – voices that distill and accurately reflect what research has to say. Journalists can’t do it on their own; they often lack the background knowledge and expertise to see through the fog of researchers’ claims. Education advocacy organizations that are often called on to summarize research findings have agendas of their own, which can lead them to be selective or even deceptive about the studies they cite.

What’s needed are education scholars who are willing, at least on occasion, to join the conversation and keep characterizations of research from going wildly off base.

How can this be done constructively? I offer one caution and one wish. The caution is to avoid the temptation to work too hard to be pithy and dramatic out of the sense that it’s the only way to hold the interest of the journalist on the phone, have your studies read and your reputation known, or your tweets shared. Pithiness can pay off in the short run, but over the long term, when pursued at the expense of nuance, it erodes both your personal credibility and, more importantly, the credibility of the scholarly enterprise.

My wish is that we take seriously the obligation of faithfully conveying the nature of scholarship in all its messy dress. Researchers know that every study has methodological shortcomings, that “statistical” significance is not the same as “substantive” significance; that even the best studies leave most variance unexplained; and that policy solutions require far more than research findings alone. They require value judgments, administrative capacity, political will, and common sense. We need to be clear about the limitations of the research we describe.

As scholars, we have a lot to offer the public debate, but we’ll be more effective and true to our enterprise if we reflect the modesty, uncertainty, insufficiency, and open-ended nature of education research.

Jeffrey R. Henig is Professor of Political Science & Education at Teachers College. He is the author of Spin Cycle: How Research is Used in Policy Debates (Russell Sage Foundation, 2009), and co-editor with Frederick M. Hess of The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform, which was published last month by Harvard Education Press.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

 

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