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Doing Good Research that Makes an Impact

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Academic forum

Lee Shulman, chair of the forum.

"Education is acknowledged as the economic policy issue worldwide - and education schools should be in the forefront of the debate," said TC President Susan Fuhrman at the opening of the academic forum that kicked off the two days of inauguration festivities at the end of January. "It is essential that we take the lead in framing critical issues of the day."

Held in the College's newly refurbished Cowin Center, the forum focused on the two questions Fuhrman called the most important challenges facing education schools: How to promote the highest quality research and how to apply research findings to influence policy and practice.

Forum Chair Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said that while a university flourishes through a stance of academic detachment from "the everyday troubles of society," the greatest mistake for education schools and other professional programs today would be "to become more disengaged and respectably academic. To do so would be to pervert the reason we exist in the first place."

Two panels of speakers addressed the challenges framed by Fuhrman. The first, chaired by Aaron Pallas, TC Professor of Sociology and Education, took up the question of how to promote the highest quality research.

For Edmund Gordon, Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, the answer lies in part in the admonition to education schools decades ago by TC's seventh president, Lawrence Cremin, to broaden their "almost exclusive focus on teaching in schools" and include "greater attention to a wide variety of institutions," including the family, the larger community, churches, libraries and many others.

Education schools must also recognize the importance to education of a broad range of fields of study, Gordon said.

"Disciplines that inform pedagogy are so critical to what we do that the notion of their being apart from us is dysfunctional. We may need to reconsider the idea of education as including human life experiences and the learning of teaching that are intrinsic to the living of a life. This idea of comprehensive education was born at Teachers College, and it is fundamental to
good research."

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, TC alumna and former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argued for "strengthening the scholarship of education through common scholarly understandings and goals." She suggested that TC's new president work toward developing a core curriculum for the institution, including for trustees, staff and interested alumni.

"The readings themselves would not be as important as their serving a common goal of creating a learning community," Lagemann said.

Similarly, Lagemann called for the development of a course that would be required for all master's students across all fields of study at TC. The course's substance would change from year to year, but the goals would remain constant: to teach the importance for educational research of asking significant questions that address central issues of the day.

Doctoral students, Lagemann said, should be prepared to be "savvy consumers and critics and users of both quantitative and qualitative methods" depending on the research questions they are hoping to answer. "This should guarantee the research methods they use will suit the questions they ask rather than the reverse." Doctoral students should be trained to write, give talks and curate expositions, create a web presence and deliver testimony, Lagemann said.

Andrew Porter, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy and Director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Vanderbilt University, said "we need higher expectations for ourselves and our colleagues. We should not write stupid reviews or accept them if we are editors."

Early in his career, Porter said, the research method of choice was factor analysis, a complex statistical technique used to explain patterns among random variables. There was such an emphasis on this quantifying methodology that researchers too often looked for questions to apply it to rather than pursuing problems for their own sake. Porter said his own experience in directing educational research centers for the past 30 years has convinced him that promoting interdisciplinary work, outside of academic departments, best ensures that high-quality research is the norm.

The forum's second panel, moderated by Lucy Calkins, TC's Robinson Professor of English Education, focused on the application of research to policy and practice - or, as Calkins put it, ensuring that "all this research and scholarship leaves the world a better place."

"Julius Richmond - the former U.S. Surgeon General and the wisest man I ever knew-'"said that when you want to make knowledge count, three crucial ingredients are necessary," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy at Teachers College. "First, you must have a codified and compelling knowledge base. Second, you must have the public will. And third, you must have a codified social strategy."

The emergence of early childhood education - a cause that Richmond passionately espoused-'"is a case in point, Kagan said.

"Fifty years ago, it was thought that -'little children should be seen and not heard'," Kagan said. "That there was not much going on in their little heads. That they should be at home with their mothers and babysitters because all they do is play. Today, every governor, every business leader, every educator endorses investment in young children."

What's changed?

"We've got a useable knowledge base with legs that speaks to power," Kagan said. "And it's not just brain development studies, but also data on cost effectiveness - for example, that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, there's a return of up to $17. There's public will. People have been made to understand why early childhood education is necessary. Kids have appeared on the cover of Time, parents are now discerning about what good early childhood education really is, there has been testimony in Congress. Even nerdy academics like me have gotten involved in doing public relations."

And, yes, there also is a social strategy. "Historically, early childhood education has been characterized as 1,000 random acts of good intentions," Kagan said. "We have worked hard to stress what it would take to create a system, what that would look like, and how to market it. So Julie was right. The lesson from him is the lesson for all of us. Moving practice and policy can never be just about knowledge. We can't stop with just knowledge production."

Pat Graham, Professor Emerita at Harvard Graduate School of Education and former president of the Spencer Foundation, took educators to task for having too rarely set the agenda for school reform.

"Teachers College is among the exceptions," she said. "There have been some very good ideas that originated here" - though these ideas were not without their flaws.

Progressive education, for example, "was championed by white males who thought they'd gotten where they were on their own merit - they didn't recognize the hidden subsidy of their environments." And the field of education policy-'"in itself a relatively recent advance - has too often operated in a vacuum.

"When policy people came in, they dreamed up what ought to go on in schools and paid very little attention to how it might be implemented," Graham said-'"even though implementation is the primary determinant of a policy's effect.

With a new leader who combines "great policy expertise with a deep concern for practice," Graham said, TC has "a fabulous opportunity to build on its tradition of having been one of the few institutions to speak up about what education should be."

The final panelist, Pat Forgione, Superintendent of the Austin, Texas, school district, posed the question: Can graduate schools of education have a significant impact on school reform at the ground level?

"I believe they can and must," said Forgione. "In the public schools, we're in the eye of the hurricane, constantly dealing with changing regulations, busing crises, and more. We can become so consumed with steering through those challenges that there's no time to engage in reflective practices. So public education really needs critical friends with the perspective and expertise to stand by our sides as partners."

Forgione, who has been hailed for boosting student achievement in a district in which 70 percent of the students are children of color and 50 percent live in poverty, said that partnerships with leading education research institutions and graduate schools have enabled Austin to implement "well-constructed, research-based practices."

"When I came on the scene in 1999, we had 5,000 classrooms that were all over the map in their approaches - we were all -'E Pluribus' and no -'Unum'," he said.

Working with the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning, Austin has since "developed a shared language of instruction with clear expectations and accountability, transforming ourselves into a standards-based and effort-based school system."

In addition, Stanford University's Redesign Network has helped Austin initiate an overhaul of its 12 comprehensive high schools, which Forgione called "our weakest link."

The Stanford team "created safe places for us to think and reflect - and it wasn't in the Austin American Statesman," he said.

All three panelists agreed that universities need to change their own cultures to effectively partner with public schools. Kagan said that while "a limited number of faculty" are doing the kind of "outreaching" involved in working with public schools, "too many of us don't see this as part of our responsibilities."  And Graham urged universities to draw on their graduate students, "who often are much closer to the realities of practice, especially in an urban classroom."

Both Forgione and Graham also cautioned universities to move with great care in taking on actual management of public schools.

"From your side, make sure it's your core business, because symbolism won't help me," Forgione said. "So think partnership - it doesn't have to be running the school."

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