Distracted by Activism

If faculty members in education (and many other disciplines) want to influence public policy, they have no choice but to look beyond traditional academic publishing, writes Shaun Johnson.

November 14, 2011

The true currency for faculty members in higher education is still in many cases the research study, preferably published in a so-called "top tier" journal in one's discipline. I think I've done a pretty good job as a new faculty member with a 3/3 teaching load to establish a fledgling research agenda. But I have a problem, you see: I'm a bit addicted to activism and writing for nontraditional publications, such as my own blog At the Chalk Face, self-producing a weekly podcast on education reform of the same name, writing occasional articles for The Huffington Post and certainly what readers see here at Inside Higher Ed. 

As a faculty member in education at a public university, my discipline, and higher education in general, seem ill-equipped to handle work in these venues. It's certainly not scholarship in the conventional sense because it lacks the veneer of peer review, so it all gets aggregated into service. For me, this also includes all committee work and, oddly enough, actual classroom teaching at a public charter school during summers. But because these activities don’t necessarily generate revenue for my university, service is where they belong. And unless grants are involved, these activities don’t involve peer review either.

I take the writing that I do online and for less traditional publications very seriously for a few reasons: One, it stands to reach a much larger audience than the vast majority of published research in education; two, for all the complaints education faculty members have about the theory and practice divide, this kind of work is accessible to folks that convoluted studies will never reach (i.e., teachers, parents, and students); and three, in particular to education, we no longer have the time to dither with our own ideas. 

Educators across the entire spectrum, in K-12 and colleges of education, are up against forces that seek to completely redesign public schooling and render traditional teacher preparation obsolete. In other words, scholars perpetually distracted by the research stand to lose their jobs in the near future.

Here's the problem, at least in education. As an independent contractor, so to speak, it could take me at minimum an entire year to design, carry out, and publish a single research study, and that is an extremely liberal estimate. In that time, organizations, think tanks, and private foundations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Council on Teacher Quality, Students First and the Broad Foundation, just to name a few, are mobilizing vast amounts of private wealth to influence public education policy. And these policies, like the Common Core Initiative, high-stakes standardized testing in K-12, and legislation to undermine collective bargaining rights, are all chess pieces in what I see as a grand game to privatize public education.

For faculty in education, the situation is becoming rapidly direr with the proposition that teacher preparation programs will be evaluated and accredited based on the test scores of our former students’ students. In other words, my performance and perhaps my employment will rely on, in some as yet unknown proportion, the standardized test scores of children that my former undergraduates are now teaching in elementary classrooms, wherever that may be. A common national set of standards, written and funded by private entities, and the creation of complicated statistical models, will make this possible.

I do not suggest that we necessarily give up on research, even temporarily. I certainly have not. Yet, it must be acknowledged that in education, there are groups working at a much faster pace, with nearly unlimited resources, and without ideological limitations, to completely transform K-12 public education and teacher preparation right out from underneath us. And education is not the only field where traditional methods of communicating knowledge will be overtaken by others. Look at debates over public health, economics, immigration, and even climate change: how have journal articles and conference presentations fared against writings for broader audiences?

It behooves faculty members to become more involved with public discourse. Universities must also provide incentives for this kind of work without the default measure of lumping it into obsolete categories. What is occurring to education and teacher preparation is part of a larger trend in higher education. Given my involvement in education reform and familiarity with the private entities engaged therein, teaching and intellectual work are in many cases lumped together. That is, imparting knowledge in some form or another, to young children or college-age adults, at a neighborhood school, college, or university, is all the same to those who wish to control it and ultimately profit from it.


Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University.


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