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In Focus: Numbers Man

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In Focus: Numbers Man

TC alum Harold Noah is also Teachers College Professor Emeritus and Dean

Harold Noah (Ph.D., 1964), Teachers College Professor Emeritus and Dean, may not have invented the field of comparative education, but few scholars were as influential in shaping its direction in the latter half of the twentieth century.
When Noah came on the scene in the 1960s, the field was dominated by historians and philosophers, some of whom harbored a thinly veiled distaste for things quantitative. For Noah, it was all too subjective. He was a numbers man, having earned a Ph.D. at Teachers College (his dissertation was entitled “Financing Schools in the Soviet Union”), and would emerge as a leader of a new wave of scholars who vigorously advocated the use of social science methods in comparative education research.
 
“We wanted to draw on methods used in political science, economics, sociology,” recalls Noah, who served on the TC faculty from 1964 to 1987. “Not that we wanted to throw out history or philosophy—by no means. We were accused of that, however. We never persuaded our colleagues that we were not hostile to the humanistic approach. I’ll go to my grave being perceived as hostile.”
 
The seminal year was 1969. That was when Noah and his longtime colleague and co-author, Max Eckstein (they met as doctoral students at TC), published their most important contribution to the field, Toward a Science of Comparative Education. The book, which lays out how quantitative methods can be deployed in the service of comparing educational systems, was a shot across the bow, setting off a vigorous debate in the field about the use of social science methods.
 
What Noah and the others wanted was to move the field in the direction of explanation and prediction rather than identification and description. He was convinced that much could be learned about teaching and learning if scholars in the field could pose research questions and get at answers by using quantitative methods.
 
It was an idea whose time had come. Even as Noah and Eckstein were publishing Toward a Science, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) had already conducted its first pilot cross-national study of 13-year-olds in 12 countries. IEA would go on to develop a series of influential cross-national studies on student achievement (Noah would participate in some of them.), including the sprawling Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), which tested elementary, middle and high school students from more than 60 countries.
 
“In a sense, if one were to ask what the value of Noah and Eckstein was in terms of their work in ’69,” Noah says, “it might well be that we provided a framework for comparative education that could justify doing IEA-type work.”
 
Although echoes of the debate over social science methods still resonate in the field today, the issue largely has been settled, with quantitative approaches widely accepted and used. Not surprisingly, Toward a Science is generally regarded as one of the most important texts in the history of comparative education and Noah as one of its most influential figures.
 
Noah, for his part, is not so certain how much his ideas have truly taken hold. He and Eckstein saw the field tilt toward post-modernist and Marxist theoretical perspectives late in their careers, stirring up once more questions about the value of the social sciences in comparative education.
 
“Eckstein and I did not see our own education as oppressive; we saw it as liberating,” Noah says. “Now, maybe, we just were naïve—had a false consciousness. That was the cant phrase that was used. Oh, well. That wasn’t my approach—and still isn’t. It’s a problem that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin has described as the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog likes to surround himself with lots of facts and tries to disentangle some meaning from that bunch of facts. The fox has very few principles and uses those principles to try to understand the world. I was, and will always be, in the second camp.”
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