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Turning the Microscope on Education Policy Research

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Susan Fuhrman

Susan Fuhrman

A new volume of essays co-edited by TC’s Susan Fuhrman looks at what the field has accomplished and where it’s headed

“The passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 made the federal government an important partner in educational policy. Federal agencies also began to follow the example of Robert McNamara’s Defense Department, and sponsor research on the implementation and effects of governmental programs… as social research grew in both higher education and think tanks, analysts began to examine how federal and state policies actually reach recipients and how local schools and districts responded.”

Thus was the field of education policy research born. Forty years later, what contributions has it made? What are its prevalent modes and operating assumptions? Where is the field headed – and how could it improve?

These are among the key questions addressed in The State of Education Policy Research (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007), a new compendium of essays edited by Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman together with David K. Cohen of the University of Michigan and Fritz Mosher of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. With a cast of contributors drawn from the fields of education, economics and related disciplines, the book is aimed at policymakers who draw on policy research and policy researchers who want to improve their efforts.

“Education research in general has come under attack as being insufficiently rigorous,” the editors write in their preface. “Critics charge that its generalizations are made on small samples and that it reveals little about cause and effects.” The answer, the editors suggest, lies in research focused on the interaction of policy and practice.

A chapter co-authored by Fuhrman with Margaret Goertz and Elliot Weinbaum of the University of Pennsylvania models this approach. The three analyze the changing roles of federal, state and local government in shaping education policy and the interrelationships among all three.

“The growing centralization and standardization of certain areas of education policymaking coexists uneasily with the public’s desire for local control of its schools,” the authors write. “It results in a system that is very tightly controlled around some issues – e.g., civil rights, state standards and assessments – and very loosely controlled around other functions, most notably teaching and learning.” Fuhrman, Goertz and Weinbaum recommend that future research include projects that track shifts in power between levels of government as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind Act – including comparative studies of countries like New Zealand, where standards reform has occurred in parallel with “substantial devolution of authority” to local schools.

“Clearly the delicate and shifting balance of America’s intergovernmental structure around education provides a variety of challenges when we strive for widespread educational improvement,” the authors conclude. “However, when thoughtfully examined, the system also provides an opportunity for identifying particularly successful arrangements that will yield more efficient and effective practice.”

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