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An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (review)
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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.1 (2001) 134-137

Book Review

An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research

An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research. By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. xvii + 302. $25.

The good news reported in the Chicago Tribune (6 Sept., p. 14) that math scores of children 9 and 13 years old have improved is somewhat tempered by the observation that at the current rate of improvement it would take 125 years to reach the scores of their counterparts in Singapore and 83 years to reach those of their peers in Japan (assuming that scores in those countries did not improve during those time periods). I am not sure that we need to worry about catching up with anyone, but the report of this as good news does suggest the paucity of truly good news on the public education front. On the reverse of that page of the newspaper we find a report (pp. 1, 15) of the latest scientific findings about cognitive development provided by a consortium of public and private agencies. There is "a growing gap between the new understanding of school readiness and federal policies intended to help children overcome academic barriers." The design of Head Start (which never did reach more than half of the eligible children) was apparently based on earlier research, which was just as trumpeted as the current report. We now have learned that children need confidence, independence, curiosity, motivation, persistence, self-control, cooperation, empathy, and the ability to communicate to assure success in kindergarten -- a challenging agenda for parents, and a daunting one for federal programs for preschool children. Do these and many similar reports make you wonder at all about what education research has been up to?

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann greatly enhances our understanding by providing a very responsibly executed and balanced history of education research. Her book is historically deft (she doesn't cudgel 19th-century people for not having 21st-century ideas) and even lively. She tries to do it all -- and she almost succeeds. Her book puts together enormous amounts of varied material to help us understand how education research has reached the various places it has occupied. Declaring her stance to be critical and reformist, Lagemann views the "excessive quantification and scientism" of education research as having won a partial, and in her view Pyrrhic, victory over "Dewey's holistic deeply social and pragmatic conception of science" (p. xi).

Several conflicting themes thread through Lagemann's complex exposition. One is the continuing and possibly self-perpetuating problem of the low prestige of education and education study, both in the academy and in public arena. Lagemann sees education as entering the academy already one down. Teaching had been feminized in the late 19th century, and teacher training was originally housed in low-status normal schools or teachers' institutes. When the field of education entered the research university, practitioners were involved in studies which adopted the methodology of the prestigious hard sciences. The same people who were seeking to make education a science were charged with teacher training. And this is the source of another continuing tension. While education scholars were tilting away in the empyrean, teachers were slogging it out in daily classroom instruction. But it has never been clear what the appropriate link between research and practice should be or how it might be established and maintained.

Lagemann concludes that "by shunning theoretical, methodological, and philosophical questions, educationists limited the capacity of their 'science' to generate new knowledge" (p. 87). At research universities, education scholars sought to separate themselves as much as possible from practice, and national rankings of education schools have tended to correlate with success in doing so.

One move toward prestige by education researchers was to seek science; another was to move close to other disciplines. These moves have been reflected in intermittent tension in teacher preparation between the study of pedagogy and the study of subject matter. How much subject matter -- e.g., history -- does a teacher need to study? Should it be taught in social science departments or in the education school?

Lagemann takes us to several institutions...



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