This month, I published the 11th annual RHSU EduScholar Rankings, a snapshot of the researchers who most impacted education policy and practice in 2020. This past year, of course, we collected the metrics against the backdrop of a pandemic that has upended American education. Millions of students haven’t been in a school building since last March, and an uncounted number have disappeared from the radar of school systems. If ever there was a moment when practical, timely research was needed, this is it.
In a nation with tens of thousands of highly trained education researchers, school and system leaders have consistently told me they’ve been frustrated with the lack of useful research about how to better support remote learning and make it work for students. When asked about what they’ve leaned on, they’ve been far more likely to mention the offerings of Success Academy or Summit charter schools than academic research.
Parents, for their part, are hungry for guidance regarding home schooling strategies and which online resources are effective. While 3 million students are home-schooled each year, research on home schooling mostly consists of legal analyses and political-cultural accounts. The answers to parental queries have come largely from veteran home schoolers and parenting experts, not researchers.
And it’s not just tough, novel questions that go unanswered. There are still basic facts we don’t know. How many schools are closed? How many kids are actually showing up each day for remote classes? How much instruction is actually happening? When it comes to estimating how much students have or haven’t learned, the go-to authorities have been private vendors like assessment outfit NWEA or management consultants McKinsey & Company.
Now, don’t get me wrong: If you peruse this year’s Edu-Scholar rankings, you’ll see the names of researchers tackling important questions. And university-based scholars have made useful contributions during the pandemic. In just the past month, researchers at Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative and at Tulane’s Center for Research on Education Access and Choice have published valuable examinations of how school closures affected COVID-19 infection rates and local health outcomes. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, housed at the University of Washington, has done vital work tracking the provision of remote learning in real time. There are other such examples.
It’s not just tough, novel questions that go unanswered. There are still basic facts we don’t know.
At the same time, in education research, as across much of American life, COVID-19 has illuminated limitations that should have been evident well before the pandemic. Indeed, a survey of the top 50 researchers in this year’s EduScholar rankings—an acclaimed, accomplished, and impressively diverse group—turns up, at most, a single figure recognizable primarily as a scholar of online learning, education technology, tutoring, or home schooling. (That one researcher is Stanford’s Sam Wineburg, who studies how consumers judge the credibility of online content.)
Similarly, on its “coronavirus resources” page, the American Educational Research Association lists seven publications that promise an “overview” of online or remote learning; just two have been published since 2009. AERA lists nine publications that address online teaching; just three were published in the past decade. Given the pace of technological change, this is a problem.
Pointing this out isn’t about casting blame. It’s a reminder that we’ve evolved a massive education research apparatus that funds certain lines of inquiry rather than others; rewards elaborate econometric analyses or arcane theory-building more than practical advances; makes it professionally safer to use big, extant data sets than to partner with risk-embracing startups in collecting new data; and so strongly rewards publication in academic journals that dicey queries, which may not yield publishable results, are discouraged.