The credibility gap in education research

As an education researcher, I’m trying to do work with useful applications, but at some point it’ll be up to teachers to decide if they see any value in it. Reading the comments on different internet forums, I’m starting to worry about how hard it is to be credible as a researcher. For example, there’s this, cut and pasted (and anonymized) from the Badass Teachers Association’s Facebook group:

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and control the training, what would YOU like for professional development?

A: Absolutely not one dang thing from an education professor. If and when they ever get off their high horse, and if and when they can walk into my classroom and accomplish what little I’m able to, and if and when they can find even one squidet of the energy I use every day just to try to make a difference — then MAYBE they’ll have something to say Im willing to respect.

And there’s this from the comment thread following Katie Osgood’s latest post about Teach for America:

Mr. S: … You don’t know the work my colleagues and I put in every day and night and you don’t know the success my children have had …

Chalk Face, PhD: You are an American hero. Now, come back in five years and we will see your dedication to education. For now, you’re a tourist.

You could say education researchers are caught in a double bind. If you haven’t been a classroom teacher, then you don’t have the relevant expertise to understand the teaching context. If you have been a teacher for less than three, or five, or ten years, then you’re one of the X percent of teachers who quit because they couldn’t hack it, in which case who cares what you have to say. (But if you’re a twenty-year veteran, are you really going to leave and become a researcher? Who is left to do the research? Is research necessary?)

Having been there myself, I understand that a lot of this comes from teachers’ having been talked down to so frequently, when they should be treated as experts on their own experience. In this environment, it’s up to me to make a case for myself. This, roughly, is how it goes:


Out of undergrad I got my MA in TESOL. After that I drifted around a bit, working in intensive language programs and community-based nonprofits, before I was accepted to the English Language Fellow program and spent a year in Serbia teaching EFL in a university setting. When I got back from Serbia, I got a job in a public high school outside of Boston, where I taught ESL for three years; I also got my math license and taught math to English learners. At that point my spouse got a job in Washington, and for various reasons, when we moved, I didn’t apply for teaching jobs in DC. Instead I went to work full time at the Center for Applied Linguistics for a year, and then went back to get my PhD. Total: six years in the classroom, including three in public ed.

Part of the reason I left teaching is that certain aspects of the job just stressed me out. I’m not talking about systemic injustices or anything like that — more like, after three years I was burned out on writing four or five lesson plans every single day. Also, when I thought about how I could advance and become a better teacher, I tended to frame it in terms of classroom action research questions like If I can get beginning ELs to work specifically on higher-order thinking skills, what effect will it have on their writing? I didn’t have the space to pursue that kind of investigation on top of my regular teaching, although I did manage to get involved in one research collaboration. It was at about that time that I started thinking I might be happier as an education researcher than as a teacher.

Am I any different from a TFA corps member who quits after their two-year commitment to work for a think tank? I think so, and my approach to doing research is a big part of why.

My research

My approach to classroom research is based in ethnography, which the writer David Bloome defines as “a principled effort to describe the everyday, cultural life of a social group … from an emic (native, insider) perspective rather than an etic (external, outsider) perspective.” In other words, I’m trying to get past my own theories and expectations to learn more about the way students and teachers understand what they’re doing. I’m not about identifying “effective” teachers and describing what sets them apart from their “less effective” colleagues — who decides what “effective” means, anyway? Instead, my goal is to work with teachers who are curious and introspective, offering them a descriptive social science point of view to help them be better at what they’re already doing.

Of course, I have to come in with my own research questions beyond just “I want to sit in on some classes and see what happens.” Edit: Ideally, the teachers I’m working with would be involved in articulating the questions that drive the research; I provide the methodological tools, but we can figure the questions out together. My particular focus is on academic language and the way that students acquire it (or don’t). I’ve written before about what that is and how it’s connected to culturally relevant pedagogy, and my hope is that teachers will find some use in it.

The jury is still out

I imagine this will never end. With each new potential participant or collaborator, I’ll need to make a case for what I do and why they should care. In order to do that, though, I’ll need to articulate to myself why they should care, and ideally that will help to guide my work in useful directions.

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3 comments on “The credibility gap in education research
  1. I have had some similar concerns because my biography also shows approximately 1.5 years of full K-12 teaching experience (counting student teaching). This past year I volunteered at a local school as an instructional assistant and through the GK-12 program. I’ve also taught for four years at the college (primarily freshman) level. My concern has been about the job market and the experience expectations of teacher educators in job descriptions. I have heard conflicting reports about how much the experience part plays in hiring decisions for teacher educators. So I am always a bit uneasy about this issue.

    In terms of credibility, I think it may have a lot to do with self-presentation. I agree that teachers should be treated as experts in their own experience in the field. As an assistant this past year, I put my foot in my mouth a number of times explain my thinking on an issue in a way that did not respect my cooperating teacher’s experience. But I’d like to think I’ve learned.

    While I do hope to take most of my research into an action research paradigm, I still think there is some value to be gained from etic research; my dissertation will be focused on analyzing student texts from a genre perspective, although I hope to also incorporate contextual data from teachers lesson plans and assignments. I can’t see SFL as anything other than an etic–curious how it fits into your view of your own research? Do you just see at as a method to an emic view?

    I find value in etic research because I have an agenda to advance an SFL-based curriculum in the United States. We need to help students develop a better metalanguage for writing that is informed by linguistics and not just rhetoric. So I am still holding onto my own theories and my research will be driven by this agenda. But I don’t see why I can’t also value the perspectives of teachers and students as well, especially as I hope to help change curriculum and instruction in ELA writing. After all, in order to help effect change, we need to know where we are first.

    • Daniel says:

      I think this relates to something you and I have talked about before: in cross-disciplinary work, how do you avoid evangelicalism? In education particularly, there’s a long history of researchers coming in like the new messiah: Do you teach early literacy? Then Scholastic Intervention, Open Court, Literacy Place, Making Meaning, Teacher’s College, Words Their Way, … will solve all your problems if you only implement it faithfully! So programs turn over, teachers burn out, nothing gets implemented faithfully because administrators are always on to the next big thing. What ethnography gets for us in ed research is a way of understanding problems as teachers and students see them, not only as we identify them through our own lens.

      David Bloome writes about ethnography being a mindset rather than (or in addition to) a set of tools. That is, just because you’re using participant observation or other qualitative methods, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to get at the community’s emic perspective. IMO the flip side of this is that you can use pretty much any tool to support an ethnographic study. Say for example I’m working in a law school, and they say there are 3 genres of legal writing: memoranda, motions, and briefs. I can then do a systemic-functional analysis to see what the linguistic characteristics of these three genres are, or if they even are three distinct genres (or more, or fewer?) from a discourse-semantic perspective. Ultimately this analysis will help me to understand what my participants mean by “memoranda, motions, and briefs.”

      So, in your work, why is metalinguistic competence important? Does it answer a need that teachers and students have experienced? (I think so.) How would they describe the problem? If you know that, it’s the first step in getting them to buy in.

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