Educational Research: Old Piece Misplaced

Sitting in meetings sometimes gives me time to think, sometimes about the topic at hand, sometimes about why we are discussing the topic at hand, and sometimes about whether the topic is really a topic worthy of discussion.  Today we were discussing how our organization can make our research output more abundant and, being an educator in an organization that prepares educators for the work they will do in the field of education, I have had to think on many occasions about the value of research and the benefits it may have for students in the schools and the level of education students attain in the schools our research is meant to affect.  While I have been told that there is benefit and that the research builds on past research and that the process of building new research on the foundations created by the old, I find it difficult to find where the benefit is reflected in affect on the realities it pretends to be about.  Schools should be better than something if the research, built on the old research, is useful in bringing about meaningful adjustments and change to the way students in the schools are being educated.  That better something and what it is better than is an illusive quality and just as illusive a quantity and, the most distressing aspect of the research game is that there is good reason to believe that the stress placed on the quantifiers has had a worse than null effect on the quality of education students receive and yet, the best research according to too many who do research and demand research is of the qualitative type.


How this could be is a curious thing, no, not just a curious thing, but an truly ugly and malignant thing because the affect is affecting the minds of human beings, doing damage to human beings, and undermining the goodness of democratic society via the damage done to human being by the methods that are born of the findings of the research that is done.  I do know many a researcher who plays the research game without considering, or, at least, not giving much consideration to the consequences of both their work and the implicit support for the research game afforded by their willingness to play the game.  They play the game, a good many, because they feel they have to, and they have to, not out of dedication to the well being of the human beings their research affects, but because they feel them must do research in order to hold a position and advance in their positions in institutions that tell them they must do research and publish it.  While I have nothing against procedures and policy that prod people to do good work, in the case of educational research, the prodding does not necessarily or even often lead to the production of work that can, by any good standard I can think of, lead to work that is good and the abundance of work that is something less than good causes considerable confusion and frustration for those who are dedicated to discovering the best ways to educate citizens of this democratic nation.


With the push by institutions for all who wish advancement to public and publish research, the quality of the research, particularly in regard to its relevance for bringing about sound instructional practice, effective institutional organization, and meaningful ways to assess the quality of the work being done in these institutions, it is an almost impossible task to find the truly good research.  Yes, we have an overabundance of the stuff and the time one must spend wading through the crap to get at the essential is both time wasting and a rather terrible experience for those who must do so in order to determine the nature of the research base upon which they are required to build their projects.  Time, in our society is often treated as if it were money.  Personally, I consider time to be valuable in and of it self and I do not like to waste what time I have involved in tasks that bring about nothing of worth and deep me from doing other things that make me feel as thought I am spending my time working toward meaningful ends.


Not all research is a waste of time and there are ever so many researchers who make critically important contributions to the information pool from which we take in order to grow our minds and advance critical societal agendas.  And some of that research comes from the field of education.  And I am all for aspiring researchers given the incentives they need to develop into researchers who produce meaningful work.


And it is with the word meaningful that a sensible discussion of research needs to consider once and again and again and again and, sadly, the goals of such discussion are not really well served by the process of peer review.  While peer review may be helpful in reducing the number of pieces that get published, it does not insure that the best work is the work that gets published.  Nor doe it necessarily inspire those with the best ideas to work toward publication because of those foundational requirements that force people to pay homage to those who have been allowed to publish in the past, allowance afforded by those peers.


I do think that the best way to sift out is through peer review, but I think there are at least two modifications to the process that need to take place before there can be an effective means for keeping down the amount of rubbish that gets published so that space is available to those with truly wonderful ideas with the potential to being about necessary change.


First, what constitutes legitimacy of a peer, then how is the goodness of good defined, and third, what happens of good is determined to be not so good (research based methods of NCLB).


With this, ways for “researchers” to become good researchers whose submissions are for the purpose of advancing knowledge rather than keeping jobs and advancing in career.  Taking the last first, the solution is, I think, simple, push people to publish but not only in the competitive peer reviewed journals but in public places where other educators go such as the AERA blog sites.  Let peers then monitor and evaluate by offering their comments on the blog site elsewhere.  Certainly this means of critique will provide the writer with considerably more constructive criticism than the rejection notices that come from peer reviewers.


As for the issue of peers reviewing for publication in the illustrious publications, to reduce the amount of stuff published and to allow for stuff to be published that may be based on foundations other than the tried and often untrue, there needs to be a way to take a serious look at the underlying theory and philosophy against which particular contributions are to be judged.  And those theories and philosophies need to get their justification for legitimate through a kind of scrutiny that is based in the true basics of the field, which should be, if they aren’t already, the benefits students receive through their exposure to the methodologies the research suggests.  All throughout the dark days of NCLB, students suffered as a result of the research, the research rarely scrutinized to discern the notion of proper achievement upon which the value of research findings was being determined.  Good research was good if the ideas were thought to be useful in raising test scores and the methods that were good for raising test scores were not necessarily for teaching what needs be taught for effective participation in a society such as ours.


Each journal should be required to head each edition with a statement that explains the view of effective education it espouses through its selection of papers worthy of publication.  For example, are papers that prove effectiveness against a bogus notion of effectiveness accepted?  This might help in eliminating from many publications papers that prove what good only because of a bad definition of what is good.  The statement would be and should be published with each and every edition and that way, readers would know what the writers are up against in regard to the tests applied to their work during the review process.


A long screed, I know, but inspired by the hope that we can find a way to school improvement that is based upon research that, itself, is based in notions of improvement that truly have potential to improve the lives of students and improve the quality of the democratic discourse that is of at the heart of a successful democratic process.  If we believe that democracy is, as Dewey thought it to be, the best and most humane form of government yet devised by human beings, and that education is critical to the success of a democratic system, we need to really think through whether the way we now go about our business is working to good ends or if we need to restructure the way we go about doing business.



By lafered

Retired professor of education concerned with thoughtfulness

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