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New Foundations for Knowledge in Educational Administration, Policy, and Politics: Science and Sensationalism

reviewed by Jean A. Patterson - March 05, 2007

coverTitle: New Foundations for Knowledge in Educational Administration, Policy, and Politics: Science and Sensationalism
Author(s): Douglas E. Mitchell (Ed.)
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805854320 , Pages: 288, Year: 2006
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In this edited book, Douglas Mitchell and his esteemed contributors have undertaken an ambitious task in attempting to address the enduring topic of what counts as knowledge in educational administration, policy, and politics. The book’s chapters address fundamental questions and tensions that have arisen in recent years with the explosion of theoretical frameworks and research methodologies. A number of issues and tensions tend to recur throughout the book. One is the belief that the state of knowledge in the field of educational administration is in trouble due to a fragmented and weak knowledge base. In addition to issues related to knowledge claims, another is the need to make scholarship in the discipline more relevant to practitioners, policymakers, and the public. Additionally, in this age of theoretical and methodological proliferation, assessing the quality and rigor of research studies is more difficult. Applying objective standards of verification is not always appropriate, yet neither is relativity, or the stance that all knowledge claims are equally legitimate. Tensions exist between whether knowledge is universal or local and situated. An issue that continues to plague our discipline is the conflation and/or confusion between theoretical and normative knowledge.

The failure of scholars and researchers in the discipline to develop a unifying and coherent body of foundational knowledge is an underlying premise of the book. According to the preface, the contributors were asked to write papers in response to the question, “What ever happened to the promised science of educational administration, policy, and politics?” The promised science of administration refers to the theory movement in educational administration credited to scholar Daniel E. Griffiths, who in the 1960s persuasively argued for a “science of educational administration” that followed the logic of research in the natural or physical sciences. The National Society for the Study of Education’s 1964 yearbook that Griffiths edited is cited as a seminal moment that spurred the theory movement. Although this book does not offer any definitive answers, the authors’ work represents a wide range of positions on the idea or even desirability of a universal “science of administration.”

The volume is comprised of 10 chapters divided into four parts. The first section is provocatively titled, “Attacks and Rebuttals: The Controversial Status of Social Science Knowledge.” The four chapters in this section provide a historical context and raise theoretical questions about knowledge claims in the field. Margaret A. Nash begins with a history of the relationship between academic social scientists and education policymakers; one that she argues has always been tumultuous and problematic. Douglas Mitchell and Flora Ida Ortiz follow with a chapter that traces the evolution of theory, research, and practice in educational administration, policy, and politics. They identify four distinct time periods in the past century: Scientific Management (1875-1925), Executive Leadership (1925-45), Organizational Sociology and the Theory Movement (1945-75), and Institutional Productivity and Theoretical Diversity (1975-present). Each phase represents the shifting landscape of a science of educational administration and management. In Chapter 3, Brian Rowan reflects on the theory movement and defends its apparent demise and reduction to an historical artifact. Due to current federal education policy predilections, a scientific approach to research is again on the rise. Rowan also raises thoughtful questions about theoretical and methodological diversity and how they can be accommodated or if they can be reconciled. The section concludes with a chapter on legal inquiry in education by Paul Green, who uses a case study of interpretations of the 14th amendment to illustrate judicial analysis and how legal knowledge is constructed.

Part II, under the heading of “Changing Conceptions of Administration and Policy,” includes two chapters that speak to the current state of knowledge claims in educational administration and policy. Ronald Heck’s chapter addresses the tension between “scientific and normative views and its implications for reestablishing some scholarly direction” (p. 103). Heck troubles the notion that all knowledge claims might be considered equally valid and calls for raising methodological standards. Gail Furman identifies a similar concern, as she acknowledges “what counts as knowledge in our field is a mix of fragmented empirically based findings, theoretical perspectives, and normative or advocacy stances” (p. 132). She suggests a postmodern perspective as an appropriate framework for studying schools, using the example of moral leadership. Part III, “New Directions in Education Politics and Policy Research,” also includes two chapters with contrasting views. Kenneth Wong develops a framework for analyzing school governance alternatives, and promotes an agenda more aligned with the ideals of the theory movement, as he asserts the value of Randomized Field Trials (RFT) as a research design that can minimize biases and result in useful knowledge. Dorothy Shipps argues that current trends in research in educational administration are vestiges of the Taylorist narrative; one that assumes the social world can be broken down into its component parts and examined, with data from the process used for improvement/remediation. She deconstructs the pervasive influence of this narrative on urban schools. She uses a competing political narrative to expose the oppressive nature of scientific management.

Part IV, “Science and Sensationalism: Renewing the Foundations,” includes two chapters authored by Douglas Mitchell. Mitchell’s use of sensationalism does not refer to the journalistic use of a story intended to shock or excite the public. Sensationalism is associated with phenomenology and the belief that all knowledge is derived from sensations. In these final two chapters, Mitchell first examines the philosophy of epistemology and then reconceptualizes scientific research and knowledge claims. He proposes that phenomenology and sensationalism offer a way out of the discipline’s current conundrum of competing and conflicting theories and claims to knowledge.

All of the authors acknowledge and value the theoretical and methodological diversity that now characterize the discipline, and posit a variety of ways for capitalizing on these new trends while shoring up a perceived weak knowledge base. I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which each author approached the question, and the willingness to engage in substantive intellectual and theoretical arguments around these issues. A book like this one is refreshing in a discipline like educational administration, which is notorious for its atheoretical and some (like many of my educational leadership students) would even say anti-theoretical focus on normative practice. I would argue that much of the conflict comes from the discipline itself, as a division exists between scholars and practitioners of educational administration. That is, many professors in educational administration programs tend to come from the ranks of practitioners (i.e., former superintendents), and they pass on their practical and experiential knowledge to students, and do not acknowledge or have much understanding of social science foundational concepts like epistemology and phenomenology (that is not to say, however, that experience should not be valued). I see this firsthand in my own experience, and it is well-documented in Levine’s  recent study of administrator preparation programs. On the other end of the spectrum, I also see scholars and researchers in the field who have embraced the theoretical and methodological diversity that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, with critical, feminist, and postmodern theories and qualitative methodologies that challenge more conventional scientific theories. I personally find, along with several of the authors, that these less conventional theoretical perspectives have opened up new arenas for inquiry in educational administration, policy, and politics.

This book is particularly timely in light of current federal education policy that has mandated that educational practice be informed by “scientifically-based” research, and has stated a clear preference for randomized clinical trials. Current federal policy has not only reinvigorated the theory movement in educational administration, it has fanned the flames of the old “paradigm wars”  that had died down in the mid 1990s. To their credit, the chapters in this book are far more thoughtful and respectful of differing views than past battles that could get quite acrimonious.

Regardless of epistemology or position, all of the authors identified a need for research that is applied, field-based, and addresses significant real world problems confronting schools and educational systems, and that adds to a knowledge base, which seems to be a reasonable goal. However, whereas many scholars in our discipline are still seeking a unifying framework that encompasses an elusive knowledge base, I am not convinced that is possible or even desirable. In my own view, knowledge is not universal, permanent, or accumulative, and one’s position, standpoint, values, beliefs, ideology, and epistemology all influence what we accept as plausible theory, quality research, and knowledge claims. A universal or singular knowledge base in itself will not make researchers in educational administration more relevant or more regarded by policymakers any more than methodological rigor will guarantee a good study. Of course technical aspects of research are important, but that still does not mean the study will be of value or contribute to our understanding of the educational enterprise. Even though I may not entirely agree with the problem that brought this book to fruition, I was pleasantly surprised by the authors’ engagement with deeper theoretical issues confronting the discipline of educational administration and I would certainly recommend it to my doctoral students as a companion to Crotty’s  more general treatment of the foundations of social science research.


Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. London: Sage.

Gage, N. G. (1989). The paradigm wars and their aftermath: A “historical” sketch of research on teaching since 1989. Educational Researcher, 18(7), 4-10.

Levine, A, (2005). Educating school leaders. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13744, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:31:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Jean Patterson
    Wichita State University
    E-mail Author
    JEAN A. PATTERSON is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Wichita State University, Wichita, KS. Her research interests include the study of complex organizations and service delivery systems, educational policy, race, class, gender, and qualitative methodology. She is currently conducting an oral history of an African American school in Kansas that closed in 1958 in the wake of Brown v BOE.
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