Sunday, November 5, 2006

Educational Scholarship and Chiropractic Science

Improving classrooms and schools . . . [is] certainly helpful. But sadly, such activities may also be similar to those of the drunk found on his hands and knees under a street lamp. When asked by a passerby what he was doing, the drunk replied that he was looking for his keys. When asked where he lost them, the drunk replied ‘over there,’ and pointed back up the dark street. When the passerby then asked the drunk why he was[n't] looking for the keys where they were located, the drunk answered ‘the light is better here!’”
     --David Berliner (2005, p. 2)
Chiropractic practice is based on the assumption that spine adjustment has something to do with health. Chiropractors are committed to this practice regardless of the scientific data that emerges. The most that science can do for a chiropractor is help her improve what she already does. If science indicates that the best way to help a back-ache is medication, chiropractors can’t respond, because they don’t prescribe medication. At best, they can just send you to a doctor. But in most cases (in my experience) they just keep adjusting spines.

Scholarship in urban education depends similarly on the assumption that improved knowledge about theories and practices of instruction and school administration has something to do with improving student achievement and students’ life chances in a broad range of areas. When scholars like David Berliner and Jean Anyon tell us that unless we first improve the material situations of inner city communities, school-based efforts are unlikely to have much effect on student achievement or success, most of us aren’t sure how to respond. Those of us who find these arguments compelling may nod our heads wisely in agreement. But then, usually, we just go back to doing what we were doing before.

What else can we do? The trajectory of our careers and the very structures of the institutions we work within are designed around the assumption that academic achievement and joblessness, among many other issues, are fundamentally instructional problems. There are few significant avenues within our world for responding to the idea that, in important ways, this assumption may be fundamentally flawed.

If we teach science ed then it seems obviously true that our research ought to be about better ways to teach science. If our focus is on reading, then it seems obviously true that our research ought to be about improving reading instruction. If we teach students how to be leaders, then it seems obviously true that our research ought to examine teacher leadership.

(My point is not, of course, that we shouldn’t keep working to improve schools. Without this work, conditions in the central city would almost certainly be much worse. But if Anyon and Berliner are right (and I think they are) then these efforts accomplish, on a practical level much less than we would like to think they do.)
It immediately seems ludicrous to me that most of what we try to do to help poor youth is classroom and school based.
     --David Berliner (2005, p. 3)
There are a few examples of efforts within the field to respond to the limitations of our usual ways of approaching “school” problems. Efforts to develop full-service schools, for example, seek to address the fact that many children don’t learn effectively because of incredibly basic health problems. (As Berliner notes, an astonishing 50% of poor children have significant untreated vision problems). Similarly, efforts to change the horrible nutritional quality of inner-city students’ diets have been directly linked to achievement increases.

Others (including Anyon and Berliner) have looked look to possibilities for improved community participation as important avenues for resisting the forces that oppress urban communities. But, again, because these concerns take scholars outside the standard boundaries that mark the limits of “educational” research, these efforts also remain mostly marginal to the field.

Part of the problem with calls to action like those of Anyon and Berliner is that they say much about the limits of our current approaches, but little or nothing about how we might change the institutional structures that maintain our traditional focus despite their compelling data.

The key challenge for us, today, then, is “school of education heal thyself.” Until we alter the structure of the systems we are imbedded in so that we can actually hear and practically respond in coherent ways to the limitations of our current approaches, little change is likely to happen.

To link this to our ongoing discussions on this blog: what better place to begin efforts to look beyond traditional understandings of the role of educational scholarship than in foundations? Foundations represents one of the few areas of the field that consistently focuses on the importance of looking broadly at the relationships between schooling and society. Even for us, however, bringing these “extra-instructional” issues into our purview would require radical changes in the ways we currently conceptualize ourselves—changes in what we teach, what we study, who we hire, and who we serve.

I’m not holding my breath. “Straightening spines” (improving traditional forms of instruction) is what we were trained to do, it’s what we are expected to do, and it fits coherently within the kinds of educational and scholarly contexts we are most likely to find ourselves. If Anyon and Berliner are right, however, this means the vast majority of us will likely continue to ignore the central challenges that prevent those who are most marginalized in America from succeeding in school and in life.

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