The most troubling thing about this book is that its author is in a position to do serious damage in the very field she has misdiagnosed. When she wrote it, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann was “merely” an influential education historian, a department chair at New York University, president of the National Academy of Education, and a bigfoot in the American Educational Research Association.
Now, however, she’s president of the Spencer Foundation, the country’s leading funder of education research—indeed, the only sizable foundation that devotes itself entirely to that particular activity. Lagemann now controls some $30 million per annum that can be directed to wrong-headed projects.
What do I mean by “wrong”? There is a great divide within education research. On the one side, we find a commitment to real science: the view that education research should follow the norms and canons of real science, basing its findings on quantifiable data, measurable changes, rigorous analysis, and, wherever possible, properly controlled experiments. Here we find the positivists, the number crunchers, the green-eyeshade types, to be sure, but we also find such giants of the field as James Coleman, Ralph Tyler, and Frederick Mosteller.
But Lagemann is firmly in the camp of the anti-scientists, what education researchers call “qualitative work,” a peculiar nether world illuminated mainly by values, theories, impressions, and feelings. In a typical qualitative study, the researcher will immerse himself in the culture of a classroom or school, noting what he sees and hears and what appears to be happening. Data will consist primarily of the evidence of one’s senses rather than firm measures of objective phenomena.
The distinction, to be sure, is not rigid. Many studies contain both qualitative and quantitative elements, just as many schools contain elements of both “traditional” and “progressive” instruction. But it’s a necessary distinction. Though qualitative research is useful for specific purposes, it’s fundamentally nonscientific. For better or worse, that means it will always be classified on the “arts” side of the “arts and sciences” divide and will always be seen by outsiders as consisting fundamentally of opinion, impression, belief, and judgment rather than evidence.
If K-12 education were working well in the United States, producing the results we seek for all our children and communities, such things would not much matter. But at a time when it is serving millions of youngsters badly, the search is on for sure-fire ways to fix it. Voters, taxpayers, and elected officials want to know what works, and above all they want to know what will raise student achievement in measurable ways. They crave data and reasonable certainty. They want to know which “intervention” has what effect on how many children at what cost.
In such a time, it is vital that education research attain the high level of scientific certainty that is found in the hard sciences. While not everything worth knowing about education will ever be known with complete certainty, much can be set forth with reasonable confidence today and more should be tomorrow. A good example is teaching young children to read: While phonics-based methods don’t work with every youngster, they work better with most kids than do “whole-language” methods. This is now settled science, known with as much certainty as the mechanism of smallpox vaccinations or what keeps a plane in the air.
Yet this information is widely ignored by practicing educators because it does not accord with their beliefs or the methods they were taught back in the teachers colleges—many of which base their lessons on professors’ preferences rather than hard evidence. If medicine were like education, doctors would still be using leeches and mustard plasters!
Enter Dr. Lagemann with an earnest plea for education research to embrace qualitative methods and shun what she regards as its dangerously misplaced emphasis on quantification. In her view, the field began to lose its bearings around 1920 when it became “more technical than liberal” and “more narrowly instrumental than genuinely investigatory in an open-ended, playful way.”
Open-ended and playful indeed! Tell that to the parents, teachers, and elected officials who are faced with failing schools and competing, multimillion dollar plans to clean them up. These people need more certainty from education research, and less “play.”
Lagemann would make education research even less of a science than it’s struggling to become, thereby leaving it even more vulnerable to every passing fad. Her book is not without value. Some of the history it presents is interesting, at least to aficionados of this obscure field. It is the author’s conclusions and recommendations that are misguided—and they will likely misguide the expenditure of the Spencer Foundation’s millions for years to come.
Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is a former assistant U.S. secretary of education for research and improvement.