What is the Relationship Between Ed Schools, Research, and Practice?

Many in the blogosphere are having a good time with a statement made by Bill Gates that education schools are “not about research”. Clearly, there are some that are, including some that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has generously funded.  In fairness, two points come to mind:
First, the majority of education schools do not focus at all on research. And, these are the schools that most teachers attend. The truth is that the majority of American education schools have low entrance requirements and are staffed by faculty who are not actively conducting research with those in the leading research institutions. These education schools, while they may be more accessible to would be teachers, are like a  parallel universe to the prestigious and well known research academies, as education policy scholar David K. Cohen pointed out in a seminal piece on educational practice.

This separation makes it both harder for research to influence practice and for researchers to be connected to the authentic problems facing many in the field.   And, as Cohen points out, the failure to connect these worlds so that  research can influence practitioners occurs from both directions:

But prestige does not necessarily translate into influence on practice. For one thing, these institutions at the top are quite remote from the thousands of higher and lower schools in which nearly all teaching and learning occurs. While faculty and administrators in these institutions sometimes fervently wish to influence these other, lesser schools, they no less fervently wish to retain the great status, accorded to those at the top, which so distances them from the schools they wish to affect.

Second, even at those educational institutions that do research, the research is almost entirely in existing paradigms and communities (teaching and learning, administration, policy, curriculum, etc.)  Each of these paradigms has their own conception of what counts as evidence and what types of studies are appropriate.  Once entering a graduate program, students usually stay within their community and apprentice under the expert professionals in educational sub-communities that rarely mix.

The result is that the research that we see today is all too often just like the research we saw yesterday. Research that asks questions that have not been asked before is rare. Research in educational systems introduces some new challenges in terms of conception and study design because systems include multiple communities and forms of evidence.   The types of collaborations that most educational researchers participate in are also fairly predictable. While psychology, economics, and lingusitics researches jointly study with educators, there are few cases of scholars in education working with those from other fields such as business, information science, and organizational science that study complex organizations.   This segmentation of the education community into largley independent sub-fields may contribute to a low level of research innovation Gates and others have referred to.  This becomes an important issue when considering educational data systems that can cross and even redefine boundaries.


Note: I have not been funded by the Gates Foundation or other large foundations working in educaiton, although they have provided input on my book.

Dr. Piety is a national expert in educational data. He is on the faculty of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland where he teaches information and database technologies, cloud computing, and social media. He is the author of Assessing the Educational Data Movement, a book on using data to improve school success.

Posted in Big ideas & theories, Research

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