Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 2005 Issue »


    Gary Orfield
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    When the Harvard Educational Review began publishing three-quarters of a century ago, the nation’s public schools played a much less critical role in the lives of their students and society than they do today. Public intellectuals, not research scientists, played the most influential role in determining how schools worked. The great majority of students did not finish high school, and college was for the privileged few. There were many jobs that could support a middle-class family for which a formal education was not very important. Race was perceived as mostly a southern problem, and the immigrants who sparked some concern came largely from Southern and Central Europe. Although times were different, the schools were then, as they have been for so many generations, an area of deep interest in American public life and of critical importance to the American ideology of opportunity.

    Since that time, the schools’ role and the society they serve have undergone considerable transformation, and it is clear that significant changes are far from over. Demographic shifts within the United States, the rise of huge multinational employers, and the integration of the global economy and labor market guarantee that great changes are yet to come. It is well to use the Review’s diamond anniversary to reflect on what has happened, where we are going, and how we currently understand educational processes and institutions. To this end, the Editors of this special volume of the Review invited seven scholars to consider watershed events and trends that have transformed educational research and practice, to reflect on what they have learned from research, teaching, and policy debates, and to offer thoughts about the future of research, policy, and the role of schools.

    This collection deals with the intellectual history of educational research and assesses where it has come from, where it may be going, and where it must go. Though the authors cut into the subject from very different experiences and academic perspectives, they arrive at surprisingly related conclusions. The five broad papers discuss long-standing trends, but they are not optimistic, perhaps reflecting the current period of accumulating inequalities, polarized politics, international tension, and stasis or backward movement on some major dimensions of educational and social policy. They describe limited, partial efforts of mixed success, and none of the authors sketches any easy way to make progress in future efforts. In fact, I think that these pieces should make readers reflect on the complexity of the field of education. Though it has relatively low status in the academic world because of its attachment to low-paying and poorly respected and rewarded jobs, educational research has very demanding requirements and faces many obstacles. It is inherently interdisciplinary in nature; for example, no one could deny that educational development has psychological and sociological dimensions. Furthermore, few would contest that the interpretation and use of educational data and results are often highly political. This occurs within a society that assumes its schools can correct social wrongs and equalize opportunity. To understand the broad world of education research and policy, one must have a command of a variety of disciplines and techniques along with an understanding of the historical and legal grounding of the institutions and practices that affect schools and the external forces that shape educational opportunities. All education research takes place in a world where most of the major decisionmakers think that they know the answers without looking at any systemic data — they know it simply because they and their kids went to school.

    The essays presented here critique the dominant issues in American education over the last seventy-five years — including testing, accountability, and markets — as severely inadequate ways to address the large problems in education. They are skeptical about the likely results of more scientific studies. After hearing the same things repeated by presidents and businessmen, think tanks and agencies, these writers are hungry for something deeper and more authentic, something that really gains purchase on our problems. Each of these articles contains serious warnings against the excessive narrowing of vision that comes with basing educational decisions on unexamined theories or test scores. The reductionism dictated by shrinking the value of a teacher or a school to a few decontextualized numbers disturbs the authors. The reification of those numbers into a definition of quality and value concerns them. From varied starting points, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Kieran Egan, Sonia Nieto, Jean Anyon, and Nelly Stromquist argue that our perspective must be far broader and we must not be trapped by fads, empty concepts, tautological arguments, or common wisdom taken as truth. Taking us beyond our own time and looking at both roots and possibilities are exactly what is needed now.

    Ellen Condliffe Lagemann writes in support of educational research that would lead to scientifically valid, causal generalizations and increased use of experimental methods to find relationships that work independent of context. In this essay, however, she highlights the limits of that approach and the dangerous narrowing that would occur if those issues that can be addressed only through the humanities would be ruled out. Much of American education’s intellectual development is, in fact, linked to studies of history and philosophy.

    Turning to history, Lagemann narrates the development of the history of education field — including the attack by the history profession and the effort by education historians, under the leadership of Lawrence A. Cremin, to write more within the contemporary norms of the history profession. Yet, although this movement gained respect and status in the broader academic world, it turned out to be considerably less influential within American education than another movement that started not with disciplinary questions, but with the crisis of inequality in the schools and their failure to provide fair opportunities to all groups. According to Lagemann, the debates that came out of the critical analyses of inequality were more powerful because of their rootedness in serious current questions and interpretations that connected and captured imaginations. She says that it is essential to avoid an artificial attempt to turn all educational issues into scientific questions because “education is a form of human interaction that is full of uncertainties and therefore requires artfulness.” She ends her essay by discussing the complexity and indeterminacy of important aspects of education and by advocating work that connects to real problems and does not despair if some of its most provocative and powerful insights come from other, more humanistic and intuitive ways of approaching explanation.

    Kieran Egan’s essay is a fascinating look at the rise of a master theory of children’s intellectual development in American educational thought. As part of the Piagetian movement, Egan writes both from within it and from a longer historical perspective on why this theory became so profoundly influential and why it is not adequate as the basis for an evolving understanding. The confessional part of this piece includes a fascinating admission of the author’s gradual loss of faith in the theories he had long taught, theories that “seemed to have very little hold on the everyday reality of schools and the great diversity among students.” His students, many of whom were teachers, did not incorporate the theories in their work, and he worried about that. He describes the now largely forgotten but once overpowering influence Herbert Spencer’s work had on theories of education in the late nineteenth century, which became the basis for many approaches to teaching and construction of curricula. Spencer’s influence was based on his strong conviction that there was a knowable scientific method to teaching effectively. Much of this, however, was based much more on beliefs and assumptions than on any kind of scientific evidence.

    More broadly, Egan finds that many of what seem to be basic theoretical principles turn out on close inspection to be a process of naming things and stating relationships that turn out to be tautological and in which “the principle is true simply because people define its terms to be something that cannot be other than true.” The academic world and the world of policy often are most comfortable when there is a dominant theory that can frame work and investigations, but this essay strongly cautions us not to take dominance as proof of truth and never to lose sight of whether or not a theory is actually linked to reality and is useful to educators.

    Sonia Nieto writes about the narrowing and betrayal of the promises of education in the recent past, particularly on issues of equity concerning race, gender, ethnicity, class, and language differences. To consider the broad trends of the past seventy-five years, Nieto chooses to focus on desegregation, bilingual education, and multicultural education, three major reforms of the past half-century. She notes how differing responses to the same conditions of the minority student achievement gap range from theories of genetic and cultural inferiority, to structures of social reproduction of embedded economic and racial inequality, to theories of incongruence of cultures between schools and the students they are now supposed to serve, to theories that some forms of school failure are actually political expressions of resistance to what the schools and society are trying to do. She offers a dazzling range of possible explanations and perspectives that would, of course, lead to differing kinds of school policies and interventions.

    Nieto both discusses and reflects an ambivalence common among observers and students of U.S. schools, saying that “public education in the United States has been characterized by both extraordinary achievement and abysmal disappointments, and by everything in between. At the same time, it has remained the best hope for personal fulfillment and a more productive life for most segments of our population.” Because of this, the schools are always a battleground for equality. To investigate this battleground, Nieto considers the desegregation struggle that began with intellectual work in the early twentieth century and was a central element of both the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the conservative reaction that took hold in the 1980s. She further examines bilingual education, the nation’s first serious response to the educational crisis of the Latino community, which involved respecting students’ native language in a coherent transition into English fluency while retaining the native language as well. Nieto also considers multicultural education, another product of that civil rights reform. In the transition from physical desegregation to real integration, multicultural education provided curricula that included the history and culture of various groups of students and a recognition that their background should be respected in the schools.

    Nieto concludes that the reversal of all of these policies shows the “widespread resistance to social change in U.S. public education” and notes that international comparisons find American schools “among the most unequal in the industrialized world.” According to Nieto, education currently needs visionary researchers and writers with a broad understanding of American society and of how U.S. schools could better serve all children.

    Jean Anyon’s essay claims that educational improvement has lagged far beyond need and that no city during the last seventy-five years has ever been able to provide genuinely equal education for the poor. She concludes that social and economic structures dictate that politicians and schools almost always treat poor children and communities differently. But even beyond that, poverty hurts families and children in so many ways that poor children’s education is almost inevitably doomed. Anyon concludes from this that economic and social policy are in fact educational policies, and that to create more equal schools on any scale we must address poverty, employment, income, and other basic social-policy issues. She believes that key elements of educational stratification must be addressed, but that if the substructure and the strong tendency of schools to reproduce the sector of society they serve are not dealt with, purely educational reforms will fail.

    Educational research is often limited to things that happen in schools. But if a family does not have a secure place to live or if a parent is working full time at a minimum-wage job and her income is still below the level necessary to provide even the basic essentials of life, her children and their educational success are obviously going to be profoundly affected. In a society increasingly stratified by race and class, Anyon insists that educational researchers must seriously consider the possibility that educational outcomes cannot be understood or changed on any significant scale by research or policy interventions that do not change social and economic contexts, and the schools. In a society where schools are assumed to have great power, this is hard but good advice. We should never define the parameters of our thought or action by assumptions and should always be open to the idea that we may have to cross the boundaries of disciplines and policy arenas to actually improve educational opportunity.

    Nelly Stromquist describes the intellectual developments since the Comparative and International Education Society was formed in 1969 as an interdisciplinary, international effort to reach general principles of knowledge about schooling. The initial premise of many in the field that education policy and institutions had strong transformative power, she concludes, gave way to “recognition that education is one force among many — one that is sometimes exploited politically to promise more than it can deliver.” According to Stromquist, scholars have become less confident that theories will be developed that can explain educational outcomes across the world. The focus changed from an emphasis on explaining the interaction of parts of the system to a more critical view of inequalities and domination within the system and its relationship to those problems within societies. Work by scholars such as Paulo Freire has challenged the influence of quantitative research based on multivariate statistical models. Concern has increased regarding the differentiated and stratified models of education emerging in many countries as economic development occurs without a framework of social and economic equity. Increasingly, cultural, racial, and gender divisions are seen as fundamental problems for education. It seems clear that interpreting and changing the differentiated results of education requires an understanding of these issues. Stromquist sees strong evidence of the impact of external forces such as social movements, courts, social policy, and international agencies that help create a “contagion effort” of policy imitation. Looking at trends in the world’s schools, she concludes that comparative educators must do more than observe and describe, but must respond to “growing global inequalities” with common action for policies favoring equal opportunity.

    As an optimist who works on very hard issues of civil rights, I was puzzled when I first read these five papers by what seemed to be the emphasis not on accomplishments but on limits and the need for a change of perspective. Later the unifying and more hopeful elements became clearer. In this collection, there is a strong feeling that the present era is not one of great depth of understanding or sophistication, but a time of limits and disappointment in two intellectual projects that stemmed from the optimism of the early postwar-era explosion of empirical social science and the period of social and educational policy innovations and massive social change that came in the 1960s. In 2005, there is a feeling not only that that vision was naive in terms of overestimating the power of the schools and of our scientific tools, but also in underestimating the drag of complex and unequal societies. Too often what had been seen as progress was not. We didn’t understand well the logic of the social sciences; we made false analogies and mistakenly transplanted them into concepts; we excluded vital parts that could not be quantified; and sometimes we got trapped thinking that tautologies were discoveries and that definitions were empirically grounded relationships.

    So how do these authors suggest we improve educational research, policy, and practice? They ask us to expand our field of vision and to think seriously about social and economic structure, culture, and politics. They ask that our work be for something, that we be prepared to move beyond numbers and relationships, beyond inherited concepts and dispassionate curiosity, and that we think seriously about conditions that make educational equity virtually impossible. If the schools cannot function fairly because of these external forces and we know it, we must think seriously about our responsibilities to break open narrow and misleading discussions, to recognize that education without social policy will often fail, and, perhaps, to become active public citizens, following in the footsteps of Horace Mann, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Dewey, and other great leaders who combined analysis with commitment and action.

    They call on us to avoid overly technical work as a sole solution, to engage with the great issues of the day, to admit when the emperor has no clothes, and to think seriously about not just the statistical relationships but the justification of systems that often mock the shared ideas of educational justice for all. All of these authors are committed to improving our schools. But they also call on us to come to this work with a healthy skepticism about simple answers, an appreciation of the historical and social context of schools, and the understanding that educational policy is only one part of a theory of change. They call for us to be more than researchers, more even than educators, not to violate the norms of science in what we claim to be fact, but also not to be afraid to talk more openly as citizens about experience, history, values, and politics.

    I hope that this volume will generate a conversation that the Harvard Educational Review will carry on to the next stage, challenging readers and scholars to propose frameworks that respond to these suggestions and use them to produce questions and interpretations of data that will move us forward. Analysis and deconstruction are essential in the search for truth and good policy, but there is an equal need for imagination, commitment, and reconstruction of new visions and frameworks. I encourage the Review to start its next quarter century in that way. I encourage readers to consider their own responsibility to think about and react to these challenging interpretations and what they might mean for their own roles as citizens and leaders, and educators.

    The introduction to Education Past and Present has been reprinted with permission of the the Harvard Educational Review (ISSN 0017-8055) and the Harvard Education Press. Permission is granted for personal use only. For other uses, please contact the HER office or visit our permissions page. HER is published quarterly by the Harvard Education Publishing Group, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, tel. 617-495-3432. Copyright © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.
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    Spring 2005 Issue


    Gary Orfield
    Does History Matter in Education Research?
    A Brief for the Humanities in an Age of Science
    Ellen Condliffe Lagemann
    Students’ Development in Theory and Practice
    The Doubtful Role of Research
    Kieran Egan
    Public Education in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
    High Hopes, Broken Promises, and an Uncertain Future
    Sonia Nieto
    What “Counts” as Educational Policy?
    Notes toward a New Paradigm
    Jean Anyon
    Comparative and International Education
    A Journey toward Equality and Equity
    Nelly P. Stromquist
    Kevin K. Kumashiro