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* Response to Natriello

Posted By: Reba Page on June 25, 2003
I’ve never thought about federally-funded research in education as like a sprig of parsley, a leaf of decorative cabbage, or a half-slice or two of an orange, but that’s what Gary Natriello suggests when he talks about such research as a “garnish” on the meat-and-potatoes plate of “values-driven debates” about education and schooling. It’s an intriguing analogy.

GN uses the metaphor on p. 3 of his review of Scientific Research in Education, when he criticizes the report for acknowledging but underestimating the extent to which debates about education and schooling are values-driven and, further, how the normative character of those debates shapes assessments and support for education research. We have to consider, he suggests, that the feds support research in education “to foster debate and not to resolve issues of policy and practice . . . it is used primarily to provide the garnish for values-driven debates.” Seeing research this way, he says, helps explain why funding levels are so low and why they will probably remain low, and this, even if research satisfies the newly-formulated requirements to be “scientific.”

GN’s metaphor of federally-funded research as garnish points our attention to the “deep play” now being performed in and with the Shavelson report (commissioned by the National Research Council) and, also important, in and with P.L. 107-279, The Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, initially sponsored by Representative Michael Castle (R-Delaware) and passed by Congress in October, 2002. If we follow GN’s lead and spin out additional facets of his analogy, we can speculate further about the play, particularly about connections between the seemingly disjoint notions that research is only a garnish yet much effort is being made to ensure its scientific substance.

To begin, we might notice that the comparison of research with garnishes suggests not only a low-budget item, as GN says, but that research is of trifling importance — a merely decorative embellishment providing little “food for thought.” (Recall Philip Jackson’s assessment some years back regarding the lack of “nourishment” offered in much research on teaching.)

Or perhaps, as GN suggests, there is piquancy in research, as in pickles, such that the government can use it to “foster” the public’s relish for debate about education. Certainly, we can all recall instances when the government mobilized research to arouse the public’s sense that schools are in crisis or, more likely, that the country is and schools will furnish the solution. At the same time, though, I would guess it is just as likely that the debate fostered could be about why anyone bothers with a rose-radish alongside the fried eggs and bacon. Both rose-radishes and education research may be merely conventionalized tokens — something that has to be at least waved at if people want to be taken seriously, but which they can leave untouched, at the side of their plates, with few direct or immediate consequences.

Still, consider that garnishes can serve as arousal devices that provoke the appetite. Then, just as diners may chow down with gusto upon noting the spot of color on their plates and imagining a cook taking the trouble to add an aesthetic touch, along with some Vitamin C, rather than just ritualistically microwaving the meatloaf, so a spot or two of federally-funded research may pique the public’s appetite for debate by suggesting a responsible government which, like the cook, has taken the trouble to present a tasteful meal. Its imprimatur guarantees only Grade A topics — no more uninspected, field-based initiatives — and the correct methods of handling them. Furthermore, the current garnish of choice — “scientific” research — may be the perfect fillip for debate in anxious times. Whose attention and participation isn’t sparked these days by such condiments as hard facts, objective findings, and certified programs that “work”?

But this turn in the analogy makes me wonder, are garnishes a hold-over from the days when sailors were tossed a few lemons along with their sea biscuits to ward off scurvy? Maybe federally-funded educational research, now certifiably scientific, is a slice of lemon that promises to free the public from the “scurvy” of politicized and ideological education and to release citizens from responsibility for making difficult and oftentimes contentious choices — just sit back and turn decisions over to the experts. Seen thus, the garnish of federally-funded research isn’t necessarily used to foster debate — it may be used to ward it off or keep it in check. Public debate is unpredictable — and if governments seek to foster it, they also seek to control it.

This turn may also suggest that not all garnishes are created equal, just as different garnishes mean different things to different diners. A dab of caviar — or “science” — probably incites appetites differently than carrot curls. So, in contrast to its investments in social studies or arts education, compare the millions the government has invested in sponsoring the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and in disseminating the news that U.S. schools and children are losing the race with other nations, along with crucial, defensive actions that must be taken, e.g., once again, more and higher-status coursework in math and science. However symbolic the government’s use of TIMSS, symbolic action is rarely “only” symbolic in its consequences.

By spinning out GN’s metaphor, we notice that the significance of federally-funded research (and garnishes) is multivalent and often ambiguous — it can be used to entice citizens to debate (and to at least minimal consideration of research) and to turn citizens away from debate (and to a dismissive assessment of research). However distasteful the ambiguity may seem from a logical perspective, Murray Edelman argues that it is a key feature of powerful political language and a key means of maintaining the status quo in American society. Faced with persistent social problems, including education and schooling, policy makers use language to speak out of both sides of their mouths, in language that resonates with the ambitious but often contradictory ideals of “America.” The public is urged to trust the experts and engage in egalitarian debate, respect knowledge and be true to their values, hold lazy individuals accountable and standardize and centralize schooling, insist on a curriculum of “high-status knowledge for all” (talk about double-speak!) and a curriculum that honors individual differences in interests, talent, and aspirations, etc. The double-speak plays on our uncertainties about difficult problems, it works to incite concern yet also assuages it — usually by promising a banal solution to the crisis (more time in school, inspirational slogans, “scientific” research) which the government will take care of, if only it is awarded more latitude for action and more revenue. When the commonsensical solution fails, the crisis is re-announced and, as Sarason puts it, the more things change, the more they remain the same — except that moral fatigue deepens as repeated crises and repeated failure to deal with them are announced with ever-increasing frequency.

If debates about education are unerringly values-driven, and I agree with GN that they are, and if the feds use the research they fund as a poly-vocal garnish and “not to resolve issues of policy and practice,” one question we researchers in education might put to ourselves as we seek to comprehend and respond to the Shavelson report, the Education Sciences Reform Act, and other federal initiatives in education: what authority would we researchers claim for our work in values-driven debates? Is our work just one view among many? Does it offer proven directives for practice and policy? How are knowledge and values related? And would our response also be ambiguous, or can we act creatively and collectively to generate a clarifying position?
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 Response to Natriello by Reba Page on June 25, 2003  * 
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