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Education Research in the Public Interest: Social Justice, Action, and Policy

reviewed by Kathleen M. Brown - July 12, 2006

coverTitle: Education Research in the Public Interest: Social Justice, Action, and Policy
Author(s): Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate (Eds)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747041, Pages: 274, Year: 2006
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In this book, Ladson-Billings and Tate outline the recurring role of education research as a vehicle for working for the public interest. They define the public interest as those decisions and actions that further democracy, democratic practices, equity, and social justice. They also argue that education scholars can and must undertake work that speaks to the pressing public issues related to education. With this directive in mind, the questions remain:  What are these pressing issues and who gets to identify them? What does this work look like and whose interests are served in the process? What forms of inquiry are privileged and who benefits? Most importantly, what is truly in the public interest and how do we know? Each of the contributors to this book adds to this critically important discourse by describing ways in which scholars can conduct educational research that enhances democracy and social justice while advancing the kind of knowledge and information that makes a real difference in the lives of students (i.e., research that makes immediate and long-term differences to the public).

In societies working toward democratic goals, the role of education is key in preparing citizens who are deeply engaged in the service of the public good, not merely in their own self interests. As such, public interest research requires complex problem-solving skills involving the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of people and resources. It also requires that insights from different ways of knowing be synthesized and that an active citizenry be involved. Education research in the public interest is more of a service and a process (i.e., a way of doing research), rather than a particular type of research project or end goal. It tends to be active and engaged in addressing social problems and bringing about change. It also tends to be multi-disciplinary and participatory in nature, espousing the belief that the people who are directly affected by a particular issue should also play a direct role in its resolution, or even better, in its prevention. As a result, research in the public interest involves a long-term commitment to a project and to the communities and individuals involved. Key indicators of such research involve the beneficiaries, the public availability and applicability of the results, and the nature of the public’s involvement. With these key benchmarks in mind, the contributions of the authors are reviewed according to three substantive questions: (1) Who are the primary and direct beneficiaries of education research in the public interest?; (2) How are data and results of education research in the public interest defined and then made available?; and (3) who has been involved in education research in the public interest?

Question #1: Who are the primary, direct beneficiaries of education research in the public interest? Whose problems are being addressed by this research and why?  Who stands to gain and who stands to lose as a result?

Debates regarding the public interest have been with us, and have influenced the direction of society for centuries. One of the strengths of this book is its strong emphasis on, and analysis of, this history (especially the documented shifts in educational policy). Educational strategies from the 1960s and 70s favored more distributive justice, equity, civil rights, publicly funded programs, group access, and collective advancement compared to more recent public policies focused on economic growth, excellence, choice and competition, rewards and consequences, personal merit, quality, and privatization. According to several of the contributors, these latter strategies tend to serve the particular interests of business elites and their public sector allies versus the real public interest (e.g., see Molnar’s chapter on schoolhouse commercialism). As such, this book encourages readers to engage in research that illuminates the neoliberal political interests behind these recent reforms and to participate in activities that connect progressive educational reforms to other social reforms that promote democratic decision making and socioeconomic equality.

Critical of an educational policy environment that ignores the historical divisions of race, class, gender, and the bifurcated opportunity structures that exist as a result, Tate cautions against “colorblind meritocratic fundamentalism,” while Gillborn outlines the evils of white supremacy and domination. Other authors describe the current conservative agenda and its tendency to favor efficiency, cost effectiveness, and individual responsibility over equity while negating public responsibility to redress these historical inequalities. They reveal that research conducted on the narrow, private, corporatist ideology of high-stakes testing, rigid accountability systems, markets, standardization, and the militarization of schools suggest that these policies actually exacerbate educational inequalities and contribute to broader economic and social ills. According to Anyon, data on the impact of these policies are not enough. Research is needed to understand why failing policies are promoted and accepted by the public, to develop significant alternatives, and to work with community members to propose meaningful democratic policies not only in education, but also in the fields of health, housing, and employment.

While the beneficiaries of education research in the public interest should be society as a whole or specific entities unable to carry out research on their own behalf, Ladson-Billings and Tate remind us of the great disconnect between the products of scholarly activity and the actual needs of the worldwide community of human beings. Grant calls us to understand the chasm between democratic ideals and practices so that we may eliminate racist discourse and dual structures so as to foster more group integration and harmony instead. Banks concurs by challenging the assimilationist notion of citizenship and promoting more global public interest. In an era of increasing retreat from all things public in favor of privatization, this book asks scholars to challenge reform efforts to live up to the standards of working for the public interest (e.g., research with the explicit goal of promoting a more balanced, fair, and equitable social order). With this in mind, Ladson-Billings states passionately:  “We cannot hide behind notions of neutrality or objectivity when people are suffering so desperately. The questions we pursue, the projects we choose, the agenda we champion have to be about more than career advancement. If education research is going to matter, then we have to make it matter in the lives of real people around real issues” (p.10).

Question #2: How are data and results of educational research in the public interest defined and then made available?  Are research results published or distributed in an appropriate way?  

Current social and political pressures on educational research suggest that research must meet the demands of evidence-based and scientifically based inquiry. As a result of these pressures, instruction, curriculum standards, student learning, state accountability mechanisms, and research methods in education are now subject to intense scrutiny, with notions of science as the mechanism of critique and correction. What students are actually learning, and who actually has the opportunity to learn, almost seems inconsequential. According to Cornbleth, “Standardized testing has become the preferred way to tell how we’re doing (though it doesn’t necessarily help students learn), and accountability (used nearly synonymously with testing but rarely defined) resonates well for most middle- and upper-class Americans who believe that their status is the result of the well-earned, level playing field of a meritocracy” (p.208). Popkewitz examines the current censorship of science and questions whether science as the planning of society is in the public interest.

The contributors to this book encourage researchers to think more broadly about research—to open spaces, ask questions, and confront dogma. Scientific studies in journals are not enough. Legal support, communication strategies, and advocacy groups are vital to the advancement of public interest research. According to the contributors, investigative research, media exposes, newsletters, press releases, grassroots organizing, advocacy, and litigation are all salient features that should undergird education research in the public interest. To do this, Ayers draws his perspectives from the arts and humanities and reminds researchers to care, to have an edge, to buck the status quo, and to lean outward and inward. He calls us to see other human beings more fully and fairly, to challenge orthodoxy, and to link what we know to what we do. Likewise, Cornbleth argues that we can and should nurture wide-ranging and well-informed skepticism that probes beyond slogans, claims, and surface appearances—regardless of their source. Concurrently, we should both expect and welcome similar critical review of our own work. The intent is to test, refine, and strengthen our findings and interpretations, while revealing and considering their wider social, political, and pedagogical ramifications. Barone also advocates the use of alternative genres of educational research to expose “truth,” subvert the master narrative, and confound stereotypes.

Question #3: Who has been involved in educational research in the public interest?

It is difficult to know what is in the public interest; furthermore, it is difficult to conduct research in the public interest without involving the public in some way.  Inclusive research processes help to ensure that research does in fact benefit the public, and also provide a broad range of expertise and experience that is necessary to address complex societal problems. Without collaboration or advice from an active citizenry, public interests will continue to be neglected in favor of special and private interests, and the difficult questions will not be raised or pursued. As noted earlier, such neglect tends to maintain existing forms of social stratification, hierarchy, and power dynamics.

U.S. history demonstrates that the primary route to transformative equity is through concerted public protest and organization. To be effective, progressive groups need to build public support, political muscle, and their organizations. In calling for more equitable public policies, Anyon emphasizes the need for such social movements to increase power in low-income urban communities strong enough to change policies and practices governing economic and educational resource distribution. Through an external, macro-level lens, she proposes that researchers document and describe oppression, study the powerful, assess efforts of urban communities to create power and opportunity, study social movements and student activists, and investigate ways to make schools movement-building spaces. Similarly, Apple advocates interrupting the political “right” by building counter-hegemonic, tactical alliances with friend and foe while simultaneously building progressive alliances. Apple’s “repositioning” framework views institutions, policies, and practices from the standpoint of those who have the least power. In providing real answers to real practical problems in education, he claims we need to make research public—not only with regard to the negative effects of the policies of conservative modernization, but also, just as importantly, to the positive, successful effects of more socially and educationally critical alternatives.

Blumenfeld-Jones concurs. While he does not stipulate which contemporary issues researchers ought to address, he does challenge us to consider a renewal of the field in the public interest through more direct engagement with practitioners. Blumenfeld-Jones proposes a hermeneutic, artistic approach to thinking about what it means to do research and advocates for multiple modes of inquiry capable of yielding understanding for the purposes of increasing personal freedom.

In this book, Ladson-Billings and Tate remind readers that it is the responsibility of the educational research community to understand public needs and then develop research agendas that serve those needs; additionally, they suggest that researchers should also protect the public from research that is not in the public interest. Policies focused narrowly on the rights of individuals concerned primarily with their own self-interest will not benefit the common good. In fact, as noted throughout, some policies often have strikingly unforeseen consequences (i.e., they reproduce or even worsen inequities of race, class, and gender). Educational research for the public interest must lead to mutual understanding and a sense of interdependence in working for the common good in our multicultural, and increasingly transnational society. The authors claim that while our scholarship has produced a salient and insightful critique that is directly pertinent to public interest concerns, it has not necessarily been utilized in substantive ways. In renewing the request for more participatory, community-based, and multi-disciplinary research, the contributors describe some theories, knowledge, methods, skills, and technologies that educational researchers can and should bring to bear on complex educational problems. This call is not new; however, what is unique about the book is its emphasis on process over product, and innovative methodologies over specific solutions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 12, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12591, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:03:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Brown
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN M. BROWN is an Associate Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a scholar-practitioner with fifteen years of teaching and administrative experience, her research interests include effective, site-based servant leadership that connects theory, practice and issues of social justice in breaking down walls and building a unified profession of culturally aware educators working toward equitable schooling for all. She approaches education from an ethic of social care and works toward changing the metaphor of schools from hierarchical bureaucracies to nurturing communities. Her most recent publications appear in Educational Administration Quarterly, Journal of Educational Administration, Journal of School Leadership, and Equity & Excellence in Education.
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