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.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: An Elusive Science, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann”

The next 500m


A little over a year ago, I wrote about managing the second 500m of a crew race. Catch – send. Catch – send. There were moments that weren’t pretty, and work that I’m glad is done, but I made it through. I’m into the third 500m now, and it’s time for a power 10: 10 strokes as hard as I can pull.

It’s spring break. Campus is quiet, undergrads are off to Florida or Mexico, other grad students are working from home, and I’m in the office, frantically writing a first draft of my dissertation proposal. In two weeks, I need to have an executive summary for the Clark Seminar, which I’m honored to have been selected to. Next week, I’m off to another Carnegie Summit to present a poster about our PiPNIC work. So this week is it.

The third 500m is when you started to feel the send. You feel the glide of the boat under you, the water beside the boat smooths out, and there is a crisp snap against the oarlocks. The power 10 feels good: a sense of power, possibility, and strength.

I’m starting to see connections between what I thought was an interesting idea and the good work happening in schools. I use words like epistemology and distributed cognition and (at least I think) I know what they mean. I have definitely developed an appreciation for the time it takes to develop from an idea to a study.

Focus on the rhythm, keep the course, send each pull.

Book Notes & Thoughts: How Organizations Develop Activists, by Hahrie Han


The author of this book, Hahrie Han, is a political scientist who gave a riveting, heartfelt, and compelling keynote address at last year’s Carnegie Summit (which I wrote about here). I finally got around to opening the book, which I had out from the library since last spring, in order to get more details.

Over the course of two years, she investigated two civic associations. One thing I liked best about her methods was that she spent a year learning about them and drawing on quantitative data and ethnographic fieldnotes, then returned the next year with small trials to see if her theories played out.

Her goal was to find out why some chapters had high-engagement from their members and others didn’t. She goes to great lengths (which I won’t here) to articulate what she means by high-engagement and how she paired the comparisons.

Ultimately, she describes three different “models of engagement”: lone wolves, mobilizers, and organizers. L0w-engagement sites combined lone wolves and mobilizers, whereas high-engagement combined mobilizers and organizers. Lone wolves are just what they are called: they have individuals who are “star volunteers,” who work alone, power themselves, and do great things, alone. Their focus is on the issue, not the organization. Mobilizers get more people involved. They capitalize on the interest people already have on an issue and get them to show up. For example, this might mean really long email lists that go out with information, which may or may not pay off in terms of people taking action. Finally, organizers focus on developing leadership and capacity. They invest in volunteers by giving them opportunities and support for leadership.

Particularly relevant in the context of civic organizations, a healthy democracy requires that people have a voice. Having the opportunity and knowing how is part of this. How organizations get people to come out and vote, protest, and lead is critical. “By bringing people together for collective activity, associations teach people the basic skills of democratic citizenship while advocating for their members’ interests in the public arena … Through the ways in which they reach and engage people, these associations can become engines of activism that propel people to higher levels of involvement” (p.28).

Reflections: While this book is outside of my field, it was instructive in terms of the methods and formulation of an argument. I’m not sure whether some of these concepts (lone wolves, mobilizers, organizers) will apply directly to my research, but that is why I write about them here, in commonplace book in the commons.

Book Notes & Thoughts: Despite the Best of Intentions, by Lewis & Diamond

best of intentions

The fall semester kicks off tomorrow so I’ve been trying to get a jump on reading. One of my classes is called Race, Class, and Educational Inequality, with Professor John Diamond. He and Amanda Lewis recently (2015) published this book, Despite the Best of Intentions.

Goal of the book: Examine the school based factors of the “racial achievement gap” as it is enacted in practice at a well-resourced, affluent high school that explicitly states diversity as one of their values but still feels like two different schools.

Thesis: “Through a combination of the structural, institutional, and ideological forces and despite the best of intentions of most of those who work in, attend, and participate in the school, racial stratification gets reproduced in places like Riverview” (p.15).

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Despite the Best of Intentions, by Lewis & Diamond”

Book Notes & Thoughts: The New Institutionalism in Education (2006), Edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan

new institutionalism

Eight chapters into the book and I returned to the beginning to remind myself of the definition of “New Institutionalism.” Amazing how we can get lost in jargon and think we’re understanding what we read. Seriously though, the jargon in this field is terrific! Pages go by when I realize I don’t know what is being said. I know all the words, but not what they actually mean together. As always, this is why I blog, so that I have a chance to put my thoughts into words. It is this act that makes me clarify my thinking.

New institutionalism was a shift in how institutions were studied. Up until the 1970s, there was a focus on the goal of the institution and how it was structured. The people in it were considered rational actors. But researchers at Stanford began to notice that, in fact, institutions were “loosely coupled” (Weick), meaning that what was intended was not actually done. This has often been cited as the reason reforms don’t make an impact. I think of this like trying to move a mattress: you start to lift at one end but the other end is wobbling on its own accord. When we then look at schools today, they are actually quite tightly coupled between standards and assessments, though perhaps not in all realms. Spillane and Burch (chapter 6) write about make “instruction” less monolithic and breaking it down by subject, because math instruction might be tightly coupled with assessments, but social studies might not.

Stanford organization theory researchers proposed that actions taken followed myths and ceremonies, rather than rationality. For example, it might be in a teacher’s best interest to change how they teach because it would raise test scores, but they would reject it because it is not consistent with the mission of the school and would not be considered legitimate schooling by the public. I think of this in the case of Rocketship schools, where kids sit in cubicles staring at screens (or at least this is how it is described). This may improve test scores, but it is not seen widely as a legitimate form of education for all. Importantly, this is neither good nor bad. These practices are complex & contradictory, as Meyer and Rowan say in the introduction (p.11).

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: The New Institutionalism in Education (2006), Edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Research and Practice in Education, by Cynthia E. Coburn and Mary Kay Stein


I have a new strategy for literature reviews, which is how I found this book. Basically I find the people whose ideas I’m interested in and then find everything they’ve written. This past summer, I read a white paper by Coburn, Penuel, and Geil (2013) called Research-Practice Partnerships: A strategy for leveraging research for educational improvement in school districts. Right up my alley. Loved it. So I went in search of what else the authors do and have done.

First, Bill Penuel is a research at UC-Boulder. During my design-based research class this fall I had to research and present a DBR project, so I used the opportunity to read about Penuel’s work with InquiryHub and learned about DBIR (design-based implementation research). Starting with the person gave me a window into the current research conversations rather than simply past published work.

Cynthia Coburn was another author on the article, so I went looking for her other publications and found this book of case studies. It is divided into four sections: university-school partnerships, tools, larger scale networks, and district-level partnerships.

The three chapters on the role of tools used concepts from some of my previous reading, such as Wenger’s Communities of Practice, which I wrote about here and here, or Star’s boundary objects, which I had read about in the DBIR work. Getting to see how these ideas are APPLIED and written about is critical, I think, in my development as a scholar.

Ikemoto and Honig write about the Institute for Learning and how an intermediary organization can partner with teachers to improve student learning. While IFL itself is interesting, what I learned most from this chapter was how to apply a sociocultural learning perspective to ground the analysis of their research. They specifically look at how tools of the program, such as IFL’s Principles of Learning or their LearningWalk protocol. Interestingly, I think there is a difference in what they refer to as tools and what some refer to as artifacts.

In the aforementioned DBR class this fall, I heard many times about LeTUS, and getting to read the meta-description and analysis of the project answered many of my questions about it, continuing to fill in my understanding of the research-practice landscape.

My favorite chapter was the one about a larger scale: the National Writing Project (NWP). Laura Stokes applies Englebart (1992)’s organizational levels of infrastructure to the theory of action of the NWP. This is the same conceptual framework that is used to describe Networked Improvement Communities work (Bryk, Gomez, and Grunow, 2011) and will inform my spring research project studying a regional network. If I hadn’t been reading every chapter, I would have missed this connection.

Stokes describes NWP as an “improvement infrastructure” and demonstrates how the design of the network acts at A, B, and C Levels to improve student and teacher writing. Stokes cites the key components of the infrastructure as its model, its linked local sites, its knowledge resources, its people and its programs. I like the visual they use to show the action levels of the Local NWP sites and NWP Network.


The key here is that work that learning that happens at Level A accrues to the network, so individual pockets of teachers are not rediscovering what the teachers at the school next door already know. I like to think of the infrastructure as a harness that links us all together so that as some move forward we are all drawn along. Your work improves my work and vice versa.

Side note: I have always LOVED that NWP requires its participants to do their own writing, such as having teachers actually write out answers to the prompts of the college entrance test (p.154). One of my firm beliefs is that teachers must continue to engage in learning what they are trying to teach. This is one of the reasons I like working at Field Day Lab, where teachers learn through designing.

The chapter about Lesson Study by Perry and Lewis was excellent, especially given my participation in a Critical Friends Group. I think if I were to be in charge of professional development at a school or district this is how I would want to approach it. They note that “lesson study is about the lesson, not about the teacher” (p.133), which aligns with some of the other reading I’ve been doing about professional development as improving teaching, not teachers (Hiebert & Morris, 2012).

The conceptual frame of this chapter, increasing the “demand” for professional development, was interesting. I’m not always a fan of use economics terms outside of economics, but I understand their application of Elmore (1996)’s use of the term. Note to self, must look up Elmore’s work.

In their concluding chapter, Coburn and Stein reflect on the implications of the case studies presented. One is that “designers should place renewed attention on teacher learning and organizational change” (p.217), with attention to how teachers “learn how to teach”. They cite the designs needed to harness the work of practitioners: tools to foster interaction, participation structures, and intentional pathways to connect research and research-based ideas. (p.219) Notably, at the school level, teachers need opportunities to experiment with new approaches AND discuss and adjust practice. I think we often do the first but not the second, and meaningful discussions do not happen by themselves, which is why I love the critical friends protocol.

All of the projects described in this book are multiyear, well funded initiatives. I have two thoughts about this. First, when I think about my career, ultimately I would want to build one of these networks or partnerships.But where do I focus – tools? teachers? districts? teacher education? intermediary organizations? policy? Furthemore, what implications does this have for the role I conceive of as a researcher? How does this match with the traditional role of a university professor, and is this the best job to achieve what I want to do? As they note, traditional scholarship often creates disincentives to do this kind of work. (p.224)

Second, when I think about the more immediate demands of a dissertation, I won’t be able to build a practice-partnership likes these, so perhaps I can concentrate on finding interesting networks or partnerships already in progress and study them. I have some ideas…

Overall, this book builds on my consistent interest in how schools change, and, in these chapters, it is through partnerships with researchers or outside organizations. The most valuable takeaway for me from this book was the value of reading (or at least skimming) every chapter, which is why I continue to prioritize the time to read and then write about my reading.

Reaction 5: Accountability, Educational Research Methods, and Inquiry

Captured from Brian Reiser's paper cited below.
Captured from Brian Reiser’s paper cited below.

Feuer, M.J., Towne, L., &  Shavelson, R. J.  (2002) Scientific Culture and Educational Research. Educational Researcher 31(4) 4-14.

U.S. Department of Education (2003). Identifying and implementing educational practices supported by rigorous evidence:
a user friendly guide.  Available at /evidence_based.asp.

Reiser, B. J. (2013). What professional development strategies are needed for successful implementation of the next generation science standards? Paper prepared for K12 center at ETS invitational symposium on science assessment. Washington, DC.

Clearly Feuer, Towne, & Shavelson (2002) were at odds with the policy emphasis captured in the “user-friendly guide” by the Department of Education in (2003), though they were clearly open to increasing use of randomized, controlled trials: “Although we strongly oppose blunt federal mandates that reduce scientific inquiry to one method applied inappropriately to every type of research question, we also believe that the field should use this tool in studies in education more often than is current practice…. We have also unapologetically supported scientific educational research without retreating from the view that the ecology of educational research is as complex as the field it studies and that education scholarship therefore must embody more than scientific studies.” While they leave the field open for many different communities of inquiry, the DOE report narrows the focus onto just one. This narrowing of the range of inquiry, in my view, is short-sighted and extremely limiting in three ways.

First, as we learned in Organizing Schools for Improvement, change takes time. It often takes five years for a new program or community to be built and show results. There can be an implementation dip, where the disruption of change actually makes things worse initially. As we learned at Waukesha STEM this week, the first six months of their new idea of “connect time” was true chaos with teachers ready to get rid of it immediately. Now it is one of the pillars of the way they have changed to student-centered learning. Second, the narrowing of a focus to one kind of method as suggested in the DOE report means that there are fewer questions that can be asked. For example, there is no ethical way to use randomized, controlled trials to understand the experience of homeless students in schools. As Feuer, Towne, & Shavelson state, “The question drives the methods, not the other way around. The overzealous adherence to the use of any given research design flies in the face of this fundamental principle.” Finally, it is increasingly clear that a diversity of ideas drives innovations and solutions, and “the presence of numerous disciplinary perspectives (e.g., anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience) focusing on different parts of the system means that there are many legitimate research frameworks, methods (Howe & Eisenhart, 1990), and norms of inquiry.” (Feuer, Towne, Shavelson, 2002) We need multiple Discourses (Gee, 1990) in educational research.

The Department of Education report is meant to address the gap between research and practitioners. Feuer, Towne, and Shavelson quote the National Research Council that said, “Educators have never asked much of educational research and development, and that’s exactly what we gave them.” What I found compelling about Reiser’s (2013) paper on professional development for the Next Generation Science Standards was that it seamlessly wove theory and practice, describing the cultural shift to one line messages, giving examples of the way practice is now, and describing what it should be. For example, Reiser writes, about the “shift from learning about… to figuring out,” and “Inquiry is not a separate activity—all science learning should involve engaging in practices to build and use knowledge.” Further, when Reiser outlines the key principles for professional development, lists a series of recommendations, and includes practical examples, like the suggestion, “One fruitful way to engage teachers with records of practice is for teachers to analyze video cases of teaching interactions.” In the frame of distributed leadership, changing systems of practice happens through changing the routines, and this paper clearly brings research to bear on precisely what is being done in the classroom.

(Somewhat more philosophically, it is ironic that just as the Next Generation Science Standards are shifting towards an approach of describing phenomena first and then trying to explain it, while Department of Education clings to the old scientific model of inquiry that dictates rigid positivist methods.)

What are the implications for school leaders? I see the appeal of a one-size-fits-all, tried-and-true, what works solution, but I think most educators know that nothing with kids (or teachers, for that matter) works that way. Yet when faced with a field of educational research that seems to have a lot of internal conflict about what is considered “rigorous” research, what do you do first, on Monday, when the kids show up? I think this is why the ideas of design and professional community are appealing as a way of improving educational systems. Design, to me, is not about realizing one fixed answer, but rather is constant process of listening and testing, embedded in local context rather than seeking to minimize it. Similarly, focusing on professional community builds the capacity of people and context, rather than seeking to minimize them. Just as inquiry is not a separate activity when learning science or for educational researchers, it is not a separate activity for leaders, either.