Traversing the Chasm between Research and Practice in Education: My response to “Professors, We Need You!”

Nicholas Kristof, NYTimes columnist, recently published “Professors, We Need You!” This piece argued that academics are essentially irrelevant in the biggest debates in our society because they isolate themselves in the ivory tower and cultivate a culture that values nearly unintelligible writing that they only do for each other. Here are a few tidbits:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. […]

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I’ve written a few times in this blog about the tension between research and practice as I see it in the field of education:

So it’s really no secret that I’m frustrated and have been for awhile. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I know my work is most relevant when I am fully immersed in practice. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I missed my students in the time I was out of the high school classroom and working on my doctorate. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I wanted to every day have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of adolescents. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I wanted to work on the problems that challenge education from the inside.

But I have not felt much support from the academy regarding my choice.

And I feel so alone. For a few years now I have been trying to cobble together a job description that would allow me space to do both, practice and research. But there’s no model that exists for this in my school district, no structure to support it. I have some time this year to do some research and writing and instructional support for literacy across the district, and I’m grateful for that. But it’s still not the life I have envisioned for myself as a teacher/researcher who works out of the context of a high school. The mind space and time necessary to manage a high school language arts classroom are significant. I would have to cut way back on the teaching to have the space to really dedicate to research. But then my work would not have the immediacy that I get from being totally immersed in practice for most of my days. If I’m fully immersed as a classroom teacher, there is NO space to do the writing and research aside from evenings and weekends which are already full of work to keep my classroom running anyhow (this month, already 39 hours spent beyond the school day toward my high school teaching obligations) (I’m using a new app on my phone to keep track of where my time is going). I worry that if I pull way back on the teaching to make space for other work supported by the district, it will take me away from my teaching community. I don’t want that. So I’m not really sure how to achieve what I hoped I would be able to do as an education PhD in the high school classroom.

Perhaps if K-12 practice was a more overtly valued outcome of a PhD in education, it would not be so difficult to imagine a way to make this happen.

Which brings me to Kristof’s piece and the furor among academics that has exploded as a response. Literacy professor Greg McVerry (in his conversation with fellow professor Antero Garcia on DML central) characterized this furor with a key question:

Should research be accessible and for the community or should research be just to gain knowledge?

In the field of education, this question takes on critical import. Decisions made by people who are not educators are changing the daily lives of students in classrooms–significantly in schools under serious pressure to get certain test scores. So research in education should absolutely be accessible and for the educational community, to guide policy makers’ decisions and to support and empower teachers to advocate for what best serves their students. Doing research for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge is a selfish pursuit when we’re talking about children and their experiences in school and their ability to use those experiences to build a successful life for themselves. Antero Garcia says,

I want to use scholarship for public good.

Yes! And yet, the academy values, over everything else it seems, original research published in the top tier peer-reviewed journals. Journals that are really only read by other academics, mind you. Journals that teachers do not read. Journals that policy makers do not read. If we are not doing research in education for the purposes of building knowledge for and with teachers and policy makers, then what are we doing?

Back to Kristof’s piece:

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

My writings in this blog have seen far more readers than the few pieces of my dissertation that have been published. And what about that book chapter I co-authored with my advisor and another professor early in my doctoral program? I’m pretty certain very few people have looked at it. But when I look at my CV, it’s one thing on there that gives me street cred as an academic. This blog certainly doesn’t. But that won’t keep me from continuing to write here.

Greg McVerry says,

I’m educating more people in digital spaces than I am being cloistered off in academia.

And he goes on to explain how he is taking the risk to include his Twitter handle in his tenure package, how he is finding ways to argue for the importance of blogging about his work to an audience beyond his fellow academics. He explains his primary goal is to reach teachers, to support teachers so that he can have an impact on their practice, but,

As professors, we’re becoming irrelevant in education to the people we want to serve. They [teachers] are searching out their own learning, and we need to recognize that.

I teach high school language arts. I advise my school’s newspaper and yearbook. I support literacy instruction across the district. I am just finishing up my three-year term as editor of the journal for my state NCTE affiliate. I work with the local writing project. I sit on several district committees. I present at my state annual conference and at NCTE’s annual conference. I write in this blog. I use Twitter to stay connected to others in my field. I try to write about my classroom in ways that might be relevant to other teachers. I teach methods classes at the university in my town. I show up to school every single day and work to have a positive effect on my students and my colleagues.

I do a lot (too much at times). I can’t alone wage the battle that will become more and more necessary to fight for what best serves my students. I can think of plenty of ways that research in education could help the work that my colleagues and I endeavor to do:

  • Research in education could help us mount a wave of well-supported resistance to the forces currently driving education: high stakes testing, teacher accountability measures based on metrics that are neither reliable nor completely under teachers’ control, and what seems like a willful ignorance to the real problems that face education in our country: poverty, segregation, inadequate funding, inequities across states and districts.
  • Research in education could help us figure out how convince the decision makers that the billions they are sending to testing companies in order to enact their vision of testing every school child in our country as much as possible could do far more good if put toward resources for schools, smaller class sizes, tech tools in all students’ hands, and paying teachers adequately for the very important work that they do.
  • Research in education could help us to show the American people the corporate interests currently involved in “reform.” As Diane Ravitch argues in Reign of Error, these corporate interests serve to threaten a backbone of the democracy of our country: a strong public school system focused on equal educational opportunity for all.
  • Research in education could support us to maintain a focus on meaningful classroom experiences in the context of all of the above, particularly by supporting the changes in instruction that need to happen so that classrooms will make sure students meet the ever-evolving literacy needs of the 21st century.

There ARE researchers in education focused on these goals. There really are.

But academia as a whole in the field of education is not currently oriented on these goals, and it needs to be. Reach out to teachers in the places where we are already–we read and write blogs, we use Twitter, we connect on Facebook. Forge partnerships with us so that we can work together to problem solve. Value what we know about teaching. Seek our expertise. Invite us to engage in your scholarship as equal partners. Bring us in to talk with your students. Spend time in our classrooms. Help us figure out how to get policy makers to do the same. They don’t really listen to us, and they don’t really listen to you–but maybe they’ll listen to all of us together.

Work to encourage education PhDs to work in K12 classrooms, not as a plan B when the job in academia doesn’t work out (as this article discusses), but as a sought-after outcome of a PhD program in education. And then support education PhD K12 teachers to live a life as both teacher and researcher. We can be powerful allies.

Like Kristof says in his blog post “Bridging the Moat Around Universities,” I do not want this piece to suggest I am writing off academia. He writes,

I hope people don’t think my column is a denunciation of academia. On the contrary, I think universities are an incredible national resource, with really smart thinking on vital national issues. I want the world to get the benefit of that thinking, not see it hidden in academic cloisters.

I totally agree. Education professors across the country are absolutely a source of really smart thinking about the problems that face students and teachers in classrooms every day. I just want this country to get the benefit of that thinking–we need it. And we need it now.

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4 Responses to Traversing the Chasm between Research and Practice in Education: My response to “Professors, We Need You!”

  1. Liz says:

    I don’t like this, Z. I love this. Absolutely love it.

  2. Great points made about the gap between academia and real-life K12 teachers. We could help each other so much, and it would make perfect sense to do so, but we don’t. Maybe we are the ones who have to bridge the gap!

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