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Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and leading education historian, speaks to the role of schools of education in preparing future researchers and in contributing to the public discourse on education.

Schools of education can play critical roles in strengthening education reform. Schools of education should serve and shape professionals. We can help develop solid research skills among the next generation of educators, researchers, and evaluators. If we are a profession, there have to be things in common that we know and are able to do. For example, everybody who goes through a school of education should be introduced to education research and evaluation. Specifically, we need to teach students:

  • To be critical consumers of education research. This is true whether they are going to be an education researcher or a first-grade math teacher.
  • To bring together quantitative and qualitative methods. The split between quantitative and qualitative methods is way overdone, and everybody should have at least one core course that deals with various different methods.
  • To create “usable knowledge” by translating research findings into the kinds of tools and applications that educators and learners can use. Students also should be able to take the problems of practice back to research.
  • To understand that education is an evidence-based craft. Intuition and imagination are important, but teaching is not just an individual art. We must try to base decisions in educational practice on evidence.
  • To think about the purposes of education through humanities in education—history, philosophy, and the arts. So often we think in technical terms—how can we do this as opposed to why are we doing it, which is also very important.

Schools of education can also powerfully inform public discourse about education reform. To be successful in the future education reform has to involve all of its constituents. However, the public has lost its sense of why public education matters. A coalition of education schools could help to rearticulate why public education is so vital. We ought to be finding more effective ways to push our research, thinking, and values into public debate and policymaking. This means testifying, writing to congress, and publishing op-eds that will shape public opinion. We should stand for reasoned, balanced debate, and evidence.

Schools of education can help the public, as well as future educators, adopt a broader conception of what good educational scholarship is. I served on the committee that produced last year’s Scientific Research in Education¹ report. If you read that report carefully, it argues for a variety of different methods—not only for randomized trials and experiments, but also for quasi-experiments, case studies and ethnography, and educational history and philosophy. But only the first of these methods has been picked up in the public discourse. If we only do quasi-experimental and randomized trials, we are going to narrow what we can know about education. Humanistic approaches to the study of social phenomena are also very important, and schools of education can help broaden such conceptions.

Related Resource

Lagemann, E. C. (2000). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Finally, schools of education can conduct research to inform practice and policy. Experimental research, for example, can deeply inform educational practices. A problem in education is that we conduct experiments every single day on every single kid in this country because many educational practices in schools have not been tested. There is no question that we need experiments. But we need to become much more explicit about experiments, and get the controls right so that ethical experimental research is possible.

Research in the future also can help people realize the importance of families and family processes. Families are crucial educators and social policies are needed that enable families to be families and have time with their children. Children spend so much time just studying for tests. I’m in favor of standards and testing, but other important things are being driven out by an excess of testing. I think we are not very family-friendly at a time when family values are being touted.

¹ See box in the special report in this issue for information on the report.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann
Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education
Dean of the Faculty of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Longfellow Hall 101
Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
Tel: 617-495-3401

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