A Challenge to Gates

For all the money it is pouring into education, the foundation is missing an opportunity to make a huge difference – by bringing focus to education research, writes Garrison Walters.

September 17, 2010

Looking out over today’s generally gloomy education landscape, one of the few bright spots is the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They’re doing great stuff and in a very thoughtful way. Makes me feel better about the money I’ve spent over the years for Microsoft Office. And Bill, please don’t take what I said about Word back in ’95 personally — it was one of those moments of extreme frustration, know what I mean?

As much as I admire the work of the Gates Foundation, there are other things I wish they would be doing. In particular, I think they’re uniquely positioned to bring focus and current value to the vast amount of educational research that takes place in the U.S.

There were some 65,000 doctorates in education granted over the last 10 years for which we have data (1999-2008). During the same period, there were about 21,000 doctorates awarded in chemistry. Which do you think has had the greatest consequences, knowledge-wise?

I know that comparing education and chemistry in this way is unreasonable; for one thing, many of the education degrees were awarded to practitioners, rather than to researchers. But it does illustrate the point that, at a time when our society desperately needs to increase the effectiveness and productivity of its investment in education — all the way from pre-K through graduate school — we don’t seem to be getting the kind of impact on real-world practice we need from our university researchers.

By comparison, just in the last few years, chemists (working with biologists, physicists, and engineers) have made numerous breakthroughs that promise to significantly ameliorate, if not solve, our nation’s energy problem. Once the challenge in energy became acute, our universities quickly refocused and have generated a huge, building wave of knowledge that is attacking all aspects of energy, from creation through conservation. Our challenge in education is every bit as large and important, but I don’t know of anyone who can cite the same kind of impact from colleges of education.

There are many possible reasons (and even more opinions) for why education research isn’t doing as much as we need. My own view is that we have talented people, but we’re atomizing knowledge when we should be aggregating. To illustrate, when a graduate student starts working on a degree in experimental high energy physics, he or she is quickly guided toward study of one or another of the known unknowns.

Students in this field don’t wander off to do their own thing in terms of topic, and they aren’t likely to work on their own (to be fair, the fact there are no basement particle accelerators plays a role). When they’re ready, students in high energy physics go off to Fermilab or Brookhaven or CERN or the like and work in teams that typically draw on faculty from multiple universities. Dissertations cite lots of mentors and co-workers and, I’ll take a bold stand here, there are no trivial research projects.

High energy physics is an extreme example of scale in graduate education, but I think it describes where we need to go in at least some aspects of education research. Education isn’t alone in sending students off to do their own, uncoordinated research — it’s the norm in most disciplines. The difference here is that, given the our nation’s huge need to improve its educational effectiveness and productivity in a time of scarce resources, every dissertation has to count (including the work of practitioners who are, after all, called on to make a substantive contribution in order to merit the title “doctor”).

How to make this happen? Remembering that graduate schools emphasize reasonable expectations for students — a dissertation is supposed to be original research, not definitive — we could get important new knowledge by creating institutes where, as at Fermilab or Brookhaven or CERN, students work in large teams attacking state of the art problems. Fortunately, unlike the physics example, education students wouldn’t have to leave their campuses for long periods of time. Much work could be done with documents shared across the Internet, although in-person summer seminars or the like would also be highly desirable.

So, what could the Gates Foundation do to make this happen? Well, they could fund a suite of multi-university institutes, each one focused on one of the “Grand Challenges of Education.” Early childhood would certainly be one field of inquiry, and I would argue for something for the middle schools called “Overcoming the Algebra Barrier” or similar. Other areas could include the high school dropout problem, improving the high school to college transition, getting past the first year in college and, my personal favorite, working in communities to create a pervasive education culture.

As in energy research, institutes shouldn’t be just faculty from one area. As appropriate, they would draw on leaders from mathematics, the sciences, psychology, sociology, communication, and more. This would be a major investment for the Gates Foundation, but it should be manageable because not all research would have to be supported with external funds. Our universities currently pay for a huge amount of what’s known as “departmental research” — essentially time that faculty are given through reduced teaching loads. It would be reasonable for presidents, in support of an institute, to ask that some of this time be directed to knowledge creation in areas of education that produce meaningful and useful results.

In thinking of the Gates Institutes, I’d like to add something about how doctoral programs in higher education administration could play a more effective role. I’ve had a lot of contact with graduates in this field, and I’ve noticed that in general they haven’t been afforded much connection to the heart of the university — the arts and sciences.

This lack of experience shows up in the current wave of higher education “reform,” which emphasizes abstract approaches such as funding formulas, together with new exercises in data gathering, instead of more practical things that will really matter, like rethinking general education in the light of new technologies. It would be easy to blame the education colleges for this, but their counterparts need to step up as well. Too often the arts and sciences faculty teach their courses, then step back and assume the role of rather aloof critics.

That’s not good enough in our all-hands-on-deck education crisis: the arts and sciences faculty have to share responsibility for student outcomes, not just teach. One suggestion is that higher education graduate students should have at least a year of some sort of instructional assignment in arts and sciences. The Gates Foundation institute on first-year success could require this for its members with the hope that it would spread to all schools.

The bottom line here is that the Gates Foundation has a great opportunity. A relatively small amount of money could leverage the very large existing investment in education research and turn it into an analog of the tsunami of knowledge we’re getting from scientists in the energy field. Make it happen, Bill. If you do, I promise I’ll upgrade to Office 2010. Real soon now.


Garrison Walters is executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.


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