Campus & Community

GSE Dean Lagemann asks: What’s wrong with education research?

4 min read

When a faculty committee at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) convened last year to choose four books that everyone in the Ed School community would read and discuss, there was one irrefutable rule: no books by current or recent faculty members could make the list.

The hiring of Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, an intellectual historian, as the school’s dean created an unintended loophole to the rule. One of the books already chosen for the GSE’s new Shared Readings program was Lagemann’s “An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research” (2000).

Lagemann spoke at an Askwith Forum at the GSE Wednesday (Oct. 16) to kick off the Shared Readings program. In addition to her book, the GSE community will also read the National Research Council’s “Scientific Research in Education” (Richard J. Shavelson and Lisa Towne, editors), “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform” by David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban, and L.S. Vygotsky’s “Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes.”

Lagemann’s topic – “What’s the Matter With Education Research? Views From History” – echoed not only her book but also her broad agenda as the school’s eighth dean.

Education research, she said, has suffered historically and presently from the field’s low status, its isolation from research in the arts and sciences, and the ongoing triumph of conservatism over progressive educational views.

“I am an advocate of education research, but I am nonetheless quite critical of much that has passed as educational scholarship,” she said.

True to her academic leanings, Lagemann presented a brief history of education research in the United States from the 1870s through the 1990s. Throughout that history, she said, the status of education research has remained low, hindering the field.

“Education research has often been scorned, demeaned and ignored by practitioners, policy-makers, and the public at large,” she said, drawing colorful examples from the field’s founding years.

The tradition of education as “women’s work” contributes to its low esteem, as does an anti-educationalism embodied by the oft-repeated George Bernard Shaw quote “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.”

In addition, said Lagemann, educational research that she called “truly horrible” has weakened the field’s credibility. Other fields may have similar quality problems with research, she said, but “the fact is that weak education research has diminished the esteem in which schools of education and the field, generally, are held.”

She countered her own argument, which she acknowledged painted a bleak picture, with several more optimistic views of the problems of educational research. The field has generated some breakthrough in knowledge, she said, pointing specifically to progress in understanding early literacy.

In addition, optimists might emphasize the field’s relative youth or the difficulty of conducting educational research in varying contexts. Still, she clung to her original thesis, that low status, isolation, and conservatism have impeded the field’s progress.

Improving education research, she said, depends on educators changing the way education is regarded by helping the public understand education research and by better linking research to practice and policy.

“We are at an exciting moment in education,” she said, “a moment when we are beginning to know how to link knowledge to the realization of ambitious educational goals.”

Fielding questions from dissenters as well as those who shared her views, Lagemann expanded upon her talk with specific examples of research and took on the complicated notion of balancing the science of education, based on research, with the art of teaching.

To Diane Smith, a first-year doctoral student at the GSE who asked how she and her fellow students could raise the status of the GSE at Harvard, Lagemann’s response was clear and concise.

“You can do terrific work,” she said.