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From the dean

Why research matters at a time like this

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Bill McDiarmid

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When most people think of schools of education, they think of educator preparation. And for most schools of education, educator preparation is the primary mission. Schools of education in research institutions such as Carolina, however, have an additional responsibility: To generate new knowledge and understanding about the most pressing educational questions we face to inform both practice and policy.

Sound research has been never more important than it is today.

Beginning in the 1960s, policymakers sought evidence of effective practices as they made educational policy and funding decisions. They sought studies, and funded researchers, to address questions believed critical to improving schools and learning opportunities. During the past 50 years, research emerging from schools of education has contributed to a revolution in understanding of how children learn and what classroom practices contribute most effectively to students’ intellectual and social growth.

Despite the criticism often aimed in their direction, many public schools are succeeding – but not with every student. At a time when our schools are filled with students from increasingly varying backgrounds, we are far from providing each student the benefits of our greater understanding of learning and the teaching strategies that we know work. This failure to properly support the learning of every student lies at the heart of today’s debates over our public schools.

More so than ever, education is a primary battleground for larger political conflicts over the efficacy of private versus public enterprises and individual rights versus social benefits. Recently, these conflicts have been fueled by privately funded think tanks that produce reports and papers that always seem to validate the views of the funders.

Policymakers and the public, few of whom have the time to read technical reports and assess the soundness of a study’s design and methods, are often frustrated by conflicting findings from various studies: Charter schools skim off the highest achieving students; no, they reflect the profile of students in the local public schools. Low-income students achieve better when they attend schools with higher income students; no, they do better in neighborhood schools that receive additional resources. Unions are a major impediment to educational reform; no, collective bargaining has no significant bearing on student achievement.

University researchers are not without their biases – no one is. Yet, however flawed, a system exists to determine the soundness of university research: “peer review.” Before an article can be presented at research conferences or published in journals, it must be reviewed by at least three – sometimes more – experts in the appropriate field. The reviewers assess the aptness of the research design and methods to the question, the integrity of the data collection and analysis, and the fit between the data analysis and any claims or conclusions. (School of Education faculty devote considerable uncompensated time as reviewers for conferences and journals as service to their academic fields.)

Certainly, this system can lend itself to a certain intellectual conformity as reviewers apply current quality standards and, thereby, perhaps exclude scholarship that is less conventional. At the same time, it holds researchers’ feet to the fire of methodological rigor and impartiality – again, however flawed.

Assuming that practicing educators and policymakers will act based solely on high-quality research produced by university faculty is naïve. They operate in complex political environments and must address the interests and concerns of multiple constituencies. Not surprisingly, they sometimes act based on relatively meager and tendentious evidence.

However, as our society scrutinizes the roles and performance of taxpayer-supported institutions, those of us in research-oriented schools of education need to do a better job of engaging policymakers and educators, soliciting both their researchable questions and their interpretations of the data we collect.

Our state and nation are facing important and fundamental questions: how to provide every student with powerful and effective opportunities to learn; how to ensure all students are prepared for a career or higher education in an increasingly competitive world; how to educate informed, critical, and engaged citizens to be stewards of our democracy; and, how to recruit, prepare, evaluate and support teachers. Research must play a major role in addressing these questions lest we be ruled by ideology and the personal preferences of policymakers.

Given the political passion and partisanship around fundamental questions at this time, sound, dispassionate research and inquiry is essential. The faculty and graduate students of the School of Education have a responsibility to carry out such research and inquiry.

It is the heart of who we are.