Book Notes & Thoughts: An Elusive Science, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann


Every time I go to a conference, I try to bring a book to read, usually one that has been sitting on my shelf waiting for me. The book fills those little in-between moments of travel waiting in line or on the plane, downtime after sessions finish, or in the quiet time before bed when there are no children to be tucked in. This time it was An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, former Harvard GSE dean and current research professor at Bard College. This was a nice follow up to reading and blogging about Reese’s history of K-12 schools, as that provided the context for Lagemann’s history of what was happening in research. As I become a member of this research community, this book gave me the historical perspective of my field.

My advisor, Rich Halverson, and Erica Halverson quote Lagemann in their chapter in the Sage Handbook, Education as Design for Learning, A Model for Integrating Education Inquiry Across Research Traditions. This was one of the foundation articles in how I think about education research. They draw on Lagemann to understand the foundations of educational research. As I try to formulate my own schema for situating design, improvement & innovation, and educational research & development, I wanted to understand the history of the field.

Lagemann tells the history of education research, really beginning in the 1890s, from the perspective of the people doing the research. She weaves the trajectories of various players, like Hall, Dewey, Young, Addams, Eliot, Thorndike, Hanus, Kilpatrick, Judd, Ayres, Cubberly, Counts, Conant, Bestor, Boas, Bruner, Clark, Cronbach, Bransford, and Brown. Many of these I had heard of and knew bits and pieces, but not where they fit in overall. For example, I participated in the David L. Clark seminar last year at AERA. It was also intriguing to read about the inception of AERA (American Educational Research Association), UCEA (University Council for Educational Administration), and the early work of the Carnegie Foundation.

The concluding chapter provides an overview of the whole book, and she begins this chapter by returning to Dewey and The Sources of a Science of Education (also sitting on my desk… maybe for the next trip). Dewey argues in this book, originally a lecture, “that theory and practice should be integral to one another” and, at age 70, “Dewey worried that research had developed at too great a remove from practice” (p.231).

The study of education drew on three disciplinary traditions: history, philosophy, and psychology.

Three problems for the status of education research:

  • Gender: This “was the initial cause for the low status of educational study” (p.232). Teaching was “women’s work” and thus below men of the academy. In the early 1800s, women had been willing to work for lower pay, which may them attractive for the common schools. The men were also needed in the summer on the farm. What began as an economic situation became rationalized as “natural”.
  • Class: Early teachers did not require advanced study, thus it was a “profession that was relatively accessible to people of working-class or immigrant backgrounds” (p.232).
  • Applied: Education was not a “pure” science like physics or chemistry, and thus its desire for knowledge to be useful to practitioners maintains its subordinate status to more pure or theoretical disciplines.

These problems have had an impact on the field:

  • Distancing education scholars from those in other fields, thus not advancing methods and theories apace.
  • Isolation in teachers colleges, often former normal schools, that were often not brought fully into the university, such as Teacher’s College
  • Situated as inferior to other university disciplines but superior to teachers

The early directions of the field of education research – led predominantly by Thorndike, but many others as well – also put it on a particular path that was technical and individualistic:

  1. Despite its roots in history, philosophy, and psychology, “Thorndike was pivotal in grounding educational psychology in a narrowly behaviorist conception of learning that involved little more than stimuli, responses, and the connections between them” (p.235).
  2. “Thorndike’s belief that ‘whatever exists at all exists in some amount’ and that ‘to know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality’ supported an extreme emphasis on quantification in educational study” (p.235).
  3. “Thorndike’s deep-seated genetic determinism … establish[ed] an emphasis on testing and tracking” (p.235).

“Painfully aware of the degree to which administrators were the servants of the school boards that employed them, Cubberley and his colleagues wanted to help administrators achieve truly autonomous professional status” (p.236), but “the technical, individualistic orientation of scholarship in education helped school administrators [become] competent managers … but did not provide them with the insights and self-confidence that might have helped them become leaders” (p.237).

This next quote is long, but gives some context to George S. Counts’ speech, Dare the School, that we began with in my Ideology & Curriculum class with Michael Apple:

Owing to the technical and individualistic orientation that was introduced into education as it became established in universities, scholars tended to investigate pedagogical, administrative, or policy questions in education without taking up their social implications. Sociologist George S. Counts pointed to this shortcoming in a speech he delivered to the Progressive Education Association in 1932. Chiding progressive educators for paying too much attention to pedagogy and too little attention to what might be called the demography of progressive education, Counts lamented the fact that the children of middle-class Americans were more likely to benefit from progressive education than where their working-class peers. To Counts, this undermined the essential progressive aim of creating greater equality and democracy through more social, “progressive” forms of education. (p. 237-238)

Lagemann also points out that progressivism had less to do with child-centered pedagogies than with linking learning to important social issues. (p.239)

The historic mission of schools of education has been “to increase the effectiveness Of teaching in school administration through the development and dissemination of systematic knowledge about education” (p.243). To do this, she argues, you need both field-based research and the “more leisurely, theory-oriented consideration” of ideas; both “decision- and conclusion-oriented inquiries” (p.243).

She also mentions the importance of developing a stronger professional community. (p.244)

In the last few pages, she reflects on what she has called her book – the flawed and troubling story of educational scholarship – yet she also comes back to Dewey, to provide an optimism that “the field is young and change slow” (p.246).

Other important quotes from elsewhere in the book:

School surveys (p.87)

Educationist scholars aligned with administrators – there was a clear relationship between the two – whereas teachers were separate and really not to be trusted or capable of the same level of thought as administrators or scholars. (p.95)

Standardized testing as an instrument of selection, not an instrument to improve instruction (p.157)

“Public opinion surveys taken in the 1990s have documented that educators tend to be much more ‘progressive’ in their views of ‘good education’ than parents or members of the public at large” (p. 175).

“As Cremin described it in a definition that became more expansive over the years, he believed the history of education should be understood as ‘the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, and sensibilities, as well as any learning that results from that effort, direct or indirect, intended or unintended” (p. 177).

“Unable to identify a theoretical basis for studying educational administration, Getzels … challenged the atheoretical empiricism that had become a hallmark of administrative studies in education and helped substantively to initiate the theory movement in educational administration” (p. 180).

“As Coleman became increasingly aware, it is difficult to control the trajectory of ideas, and it is especially difficult to do so in a domain of policy like education, where the authority to make decisions and implement policy is extremely diffuse” (p. 199)

“process-product research attempted to correlate behaviors with student achievement” (p. 221) – early anthropology of education


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