Monday, September 8, 2014

How Do We Know When Educational Research Matters?

by Amelia Marcetti Topper, doctoral candidate in Arizona State University’s Education Policy and Evaluation program; Adai Tefera, Fulton Research Specialist for Arizona State University’s edXchange initiative; and, Gustavo E. Fischman, professor in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and director of the edXchange initiative. 

Unless you spent this spring sequestered in your office fervidly transforming your research results into acceptable scholarly languages on the off chance they will be published in some High Impact Factor journal, you are probably quite familiar with the academic debate following Nicholas Kristof’s lamentation over the state of the (university) professoriate. According to Kristof, and unfortunately many people both inside and outside academe’s Ivory Tower, academics have been accused of disconnecting themselves from public life and everyday reality, opting to while away their days in monastic solitude. Their marginalization and irrelevance has somehow both been done to them and is also their fault; academia’s very own Stockholm syndrome driven by the “publish or perish” tenure system and the overspecialization of academic disciplines (or so it goes).

Many scholars, in particular, have taken Kristof to task for his simplistic portrayal of academia as “a kingdom of isolation,” to quote the lyrics of Disney’s latest musical earworm. Commentaries in Inside Higher Ed by Allison Kimmich, Gwendolyn Beetham, and Lee Skallerup Bessette have highlighted the resource challenges institutions face in promoting engagement, the particular challenges that women and other marginalized groups confront in having their voices taken seriously, and the often discounted contribution of adjunct faculty and faculty at less-selective two- and four-year institutions. Likewise, another piece by Laura S. Logan and Stephanie Furrer highlighted the important, overlooked work that faculty do in classrooms with their students, often connecting research and reality in very real and impactful ways – sentiments shared by Carol Emberton in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  These articles, along with further rebuttals by professor/blogger Corey Robin, professor/Washington Post commentator Erik Voeten, and Gustavo Fischman and Adai Tefera’s Teachers College Record commentary, among others, speak to a tension over the role of faculty and universities in society that can be traced back to Aristotle, Plato, and Immanuel Kant.

Along similar lines, Adrianna Kezar’s recent blog post asks us in the higher education research community to consider our relationship to the academic community, and the ways in which we – as researchers, as scholars – serve and support our colleagues and students. We would like to add to her thoughts on this topic the importance of finding new ways to collaborate and communicate with both academics (at all levels and in all disciplines) and non-academics (in all positions of society) alike, which is particularly appropriate as we embark on a new academic year.

Namely, we are suggesting to move this debate about the role of the academic as a public intellectual one step forward, from whether or not institutionally based researchers are engaging in the dissemination and wider discussion of their research to how we can recognize and assess the diverse ways in which research, and other types of knowledge, are being produced and used. As the commentators mentioned above passionately (and persuasively) argue, the approximately 1.5 million tenure and non-tenure track faculty members teaching and researching at the nation’s 4,726 public and private colleges and universities contribute to public life in multiple and varied ways that often go unsung – or, at least, unmeasured by metrics of research quality that are limited to article “importance” (i.e., Journal Impact Factor [JIF]). While we are writing from the perspective of faculty, researchers, and students of education and education policy at the largest public research university in the country, what we propose here is relevant across disciplines and institutional contexts. Namely, we argue that it is not just a question of whether our research is intelligible (although that is extremely important), it is also a question of how research can be better accessed, whom it matters to and why, and how it is being discussed, used, and eventually applied.

Knowledge mobilization (KM) is a term used to describe strategies that seek to connect research, policy, and practice by bringing formal (e.g., empirical research) and informal (e.g., personal experience) knowledge to a broader audience. The irony of tackling our culture of arcane unintelligibility with such an academic term is not lost on us. We grant you an eye roll, or two, and invite you to keep reading. For more than 50 years this concept (as it goes by other names in other fields) aims to increase access, impact, and usability of research through multi-dimensional, networked, and interactive approaches that engage a wide range of stakeholders in a open, on-going dialogue (not just an article in leading inter/national newspaper or a TV guest spot). While this description in itself might warrant an exasperated sigh, here are two specific examples of what KM strategies look like in practice:

Accessibility of content. One of the largest barriers to the sharing of research knowledge are the exorbitant article fees required by many scholarly journals. Open access policies, the use of Open Access Repositories, and Open Access journals, such as the journals we work on – Current Issues in Education, Education Review, and Education Policy Analysis Archives – provide free, public access to articles, book reviews, commentaries, and video commentaries. Such approaches offer university-sponsored journals a way to make research more accessible and impactful to the wider public, especially when they have a strong social media presence.

Better assessment of “impact.” Access to content needs to be complemented with more comprehensive ways of determining how research knowledge is used and, optimistically, to what extent it makes a difference in how people understand and navigate the world. In the humanities and social sciences, scholarly “impact” has traditionally been narrowly interpreted through bibliometrics – e.g., citation counts and (now) article downloads. While the limitations of using number of cites as an exclusive measure of impact are well known, researchers often seen social media outlets (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) as a virtual popularity contest instead of alternative and valid ways to understand the who and how of research impact. Nevertheless, more and more scholars are using these outlets to reach a wider audience beyond the regular “customers” of research journals in education (for Kristof, these would be the very same professors who only see the light of day while in transport to their next obscure academic conference). Altmetrics are one strategy for obtaining a firmer, and (we argue) fairer, understanding of the impact of educational research, as explained by Juan Pablo Alperin: “Altmetrics are captured from the Web (i.e., social media, blogs, Wikipedia), and thus are (somewhat) more democratic – one reader, one vote. More precisely: one reader, several potential votes. Unlike citations, which can only be counted if the citing document is in a select group of journals, altmetrics are counted regardless of where in the world they are originated, with one important consequence: they open the possibility of tracking impact in new segments, both within and beyond the academy.”

We believe that KM strategies, such as the ones that we mention in this article, as well as others, are a viable, substantial improvement and complement to the hierarchical, unimodal model traditionally used to communicate research findings. Researchers at Arizona State University’s new edXchange initiative, for which we also contribute to, are trying to flatten the world of educational research dissemination and use by exploring different ways to embrace KM strategies. edXchange’s goal of mobilizing research knowledge for the common good requires making educational research more accessible by fostering exchanges (e.g., dialogues, visits, consultations, and interactions) between scholars, educators, policymakers, journalists, social entrepreneurs, civic organizations, and concerned individuals to develop solutions that answer today's most pressing educational challenges.

Although the initiative is only a year old, it has already begun the work of engaging in interdisciplinary research-based collaborations to mobilize research relevant knowledge through: a) its Saturday Scholars series, which features TED Talk-style presentations aimed at fostering dialogue with non-specialized audiences around the results of research projects conducted by middle school students, teachers, superintendents and foundation leaders, and scholars during the academic year; b) the creation of the Scholarly Communications Group, to support the journals sponsored by ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and complementing the publication of research articles with video-commentaries, translations, and altmetrics for assessing impact; and, c) with support from the Spencer Foundation, over the next year edXchange will be studying how and when tenure and non-tenure track faculty members at three research universities engage in knowledge mobilization strategies.

As those of use who work in higher education know, faculty members at all types of institutions have been contributing to the intellectual life of the country for more than 400 years through their engagement with students, collaborations and partnerships with their local communities, and the sharing of their research in both academic and nonacademic settings and venues. KM strategies and initiatives, like the ones explored in this commentary, can help us capture and better share with the public the many ways college and university faculty members connect and collaborate with their local, regional, and national communities.

Amelia Marcetti Topper is a doctoral candidate in Arizona State University’s Education Policy and Evaluation program, specializing in higher education. Adai Tefera is a Fulton Research Specialist for Arizona State University’s edXchange initiative, specializing in knowledge mobilization and equity in educational policy. Gustavo E. Fischman is a professor in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and director of the edXchange initiative. edXchange welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with students, teachers, schools, foundations, and communities on educational research. Share your ideas with us at, @edxchange.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What to Do about a “Color-Blind” Supreme Court?

by Liliana M. Garces, Assistant Professor in the Higher Education Program and Research Associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University

In the aftermath of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, colleges and universities face an important challenge: How can they further racial diversity in their student bodies and address racial inequities with policies that can only indirectly consider race? Legal decisions and state laws over the last few years have increasingly restricted the tools institutions of higher learning use to help assemble a racially and ethnically diverse student body and address gaps in educational opportunity. However, my research and that of other scholars suggest that furthering racial diversity in higher education requires directly tackling the ways in which race matters in shaping educational opportunities and students’ experiences. Not doing so risks further deepening educational and social inequities.

In Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), the most recent challenge to an affirmative action policy at the University of Texas, Austin, the Court reaffirmed a compelling interest in the educational benefits of diversity.  Simultaneously, the Court also emphasized the very limited ways in which race can be used to attain this goal. In a separate challenge to a state ballot measure that banned affirmative action in Michigan (Proposal 2), Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Against Affirmative Action (2014), the Court reversed a lower court ruling that found the law unconstitutional, leaving in place bans in 7 other states (California, Washington, Florida, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma).

In the aftermath of these cases, the practice of considering race in admissions remains constitutional under federal law, when not otherwise banned by state law. However, the approach used to evaluate admissions practices in the legal arena has shifted, with important consequences for institutional policies and practices.  Rather than understanding race-conscious policies as a way to further diversity or to address persistent racial inequality, the various opinions in Schuette demonstrated that the majority of the justices on the Court view race-conscious admissions policies as “preferences” that embody racial discrimination, not policies that address it. This perspective equates any classifications on the basis of race with harmful racial discrimination. The use of race in admissions policies, therefore, is viewed as highly suspect, and, as the Court articulated in Fisher, must require the consideration of all other possible “race-neutral” alternatives before race is considered.

These legal developments reinforce what scholars have termed a “color-blind” approach to admissions and higher education policy, with important implications for strategies intended to address inequities. As scholars who focus on racial inequity have argued, a color-blind approach runs the risk of obscuring the ways in which race continues to matter in shaping students’ experiences and educational opportunities—ways that are extensively documented by social science research. A color-blind perspective also ignores important links, as established by social science research, between historical legacies of racial exclusion and contemporary reasons for racial inequality—legacies that institutions need to consider and address in order to expand access and opportunity for students of color.

The implications of these legal developments are significant and raise questions: How are institutions responding to a legal environment that asks for “diversity” work to be done within a color-blind approach? Do these institutional responses address, or risk further deepening, racial inequalities?

A substantial and growing body of evidence has already documented the detrimental consequences of a “color-blind” approach in education policy.  After bans on affirmative action passed in various states, the enrollment of underrepresented students of color declined across a number of important education sectors, including selective colleges, graduate fields of study, law schools, and medical schools at public postsecondary institutions in these states.  In addition to declines in the racial/ethnic diversity of the student body, a study I presented to a higher education audience found that these restrictive laws have had a negative influence on broader efforts to support and maintain racial diversity on campus. As described by key administrators, faculty, and staff leaders at the University of Michigan, Proposal 2 effectively silenced conversations around race and racism, rendering efforts around racial diversity less visible and making individuals feel less empowered to undertake efforts to support racial diversity at the university.

And even if institutions are not directly limited in considering race in admissions, they might still change their policies or practices in response to legal rulings like Fisher or Schuette to avoid the threat of litigation or preempt a ban. Such responses may further exacerbate educational inequities.

Colleges and universities, however, need not accept the illusion of color-blindness. Faced with demographic changes and realities of racial and ethnic inequities that threaten the health of our democracy and success as a nation, administrators and policymakers have an imperative to craft policies that serve the interests of all members of U.S. society. Doing so requires addressing the real ways in which race operates to shape educational access and success.

A starting point includes re-examining conventional ideas of qualification and merit in postsecondary admissions decisions. In an analysis of these legal developments, I’ve argued that legal decisions have contributed to a false dichotomy between our understandings of diversity and educational quality, as well as our understandings of efforts that promote diversity with those that address racial equity. Institutions have the power, through their policies and practices, to reframe the ways these concepts are perceived and enacted.  We’ve come to view racial diversity as coming at the expense of educational quality, when, in fact, educational quality may require it.

Another important area involves implementing policies that acknowledge the dynamic nature of diversity.  When educators or lawyers talk about diversity in postsecondary education and the related concept of “critical mass,” they talk about it primarily in terms of the number, or percentage, of students of color on a college campus. As my colleague Uma Jayakumar and I have suggested, achieving the educational benefits of diversity depends on a symbiotic relationship between the environment and students. While the number of students of color plays a significant role in shaping a campus climate and culture, the campus climate and culture, in turn, influence whether students feel welcome to attend the institution and their experiences while on campus.  This more dynamic understanding of diversity can help us answer the question in the legal debate as to when an institution has achieved a “critical mass” of students of color, move away from discussions of critical mass as a one-size-fits-all concept, and generate the evidence necessary to justify race-conscious policies in the legal arena and beyond.

Justice Sotomayor’s lengthy and powerful dissent in Schuette, joined by Justice Ginsburg, asked for members of the judiciary to directly address race as consequential in societal inequality:

As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.

In the spirit of her call, universities and social science researchers should not sit back and turn a blind eye to the extensive body of work demonstrating the harmful consequences of a nominally color-blind approach to educational policy.  With increased communication and collaborations among researchers, administrators, and legal counsel, institutions can re-envision admissions policies to more effectively capture students’ potential and prepare all students to fully participate in our multiracial society.

A condensed version of this argument will appear in: Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (2014). The elusive quest for civil rights in education: Evidence-based perspectives from leading scholars on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Follow Liliana Garces at Twitter at @garceslm