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An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research

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Since its beginnings at the start of the 20th century, educational scholarship has been a marginal field, criticized by public policy makers and relegated to the fringes of academe. An Elusive Science explains why, providing a critical history of the traditions, conflicts, and institutions that have shaped the study of education over the past century. "[C]andid and incisive Since its beginnings at the start of the 20th century, educational scholarship has been a marginal field, criticized by public policy makers and relegated to the fringes of academe. An Elusive Science explains why, providing a critical history of the traditions, conflicts, and institutions that have shaped the study of education over the past century. "[C]andid and incisive. . . . A stark yet enlightening look at American education."—Library Journal "[A]n account of the search, over the past hundred or so years, to try and discover how educational research might provide reliable prescriptions for the improvement of education. Through extensive use of contemporary reference material, [Lagemann] shows that the search for ways of producing high-quality research has been, in effect, a search for secure disciplinary foundations."—Dylan William, Times Higher Education Supplement


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Since its beginnings at the start of the 20th century, educational scholarship has been a marginal field, criticized by public policy makers and relegated to the fringes of academe. An Elusive Science explains why, providing a critical history of the traditions, conflicts, and institutions that have shaped the study of education over the past century. "[C]andid and incisive Since its beginnings at the start of the 20th century, educational scholarship has been a marginal field, criticized by public policy makers and relegated to the fringes of academe. An Elusive Science explains why, providing a critical history of the traditions, conflicts, and institutions that have shaped the study of education over the past century. "[C]andid and incisive. . . . A stark yet enlightening look at American education."—Library Journal "[A]n account of the search, over the past hundred or so years, to try and discover how educational research might provide reliable prescriptions for the improvement of education. Through extensive use of contemporary reference material, [Lagemann] shows that the search for ways of producing high-quality research has been, in effect, a search for secure disciplinary foundations."—Dylan William, Times Higher Education Supplement

30 review for An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research

  1. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    This was surprisingly good for a history by an academic of and academic field (education) and its research. The issue is that “education” taken as a distinct academic field has seldom if ever enjoyed significant status relative to other academic areas, both more focused disciplines and other policy oriented areas, such as business administration or engineering. As a result, the most current perspectives on education backed up by quality research are less persuasive than other academic research a This was surprisingly good for a history by an academic of and academic field (education) and its research. The issue is that “education” taken as a distinct academic field has seldom if ever enjoyed significant status relative to other academic areas, both more focused disciplines and other policy oriented areas, such as business administration or engineering. As a result, the most current perspectives on education backed up by quality research are less persuasive than other academic research areas. Education scholars do not have the same influence, they do not affect policy, and they do not get the same resources from founders and other sponsors. If one hangs around academia long enough, this is fairly common stuff and well known material. Professor Lagemann does a good job of articulating the reasons and is quite illuminating in doing so. To start with, there is little theory about what this area is supposed to accomplish and how it is supposed to work to be effective. What does it mean to educate children at primary, secondary, or post-secondary levels? Most everybody presumes some position here, of course, but there is such variety in the field that it is incomprehensible how a unified field would develop as it did for example in medicine under Flexner’s influence. Observers today would note the role of class differences in organizing education. That has always been the case, according to Professor Lagemann who shows the deep historical roots of class in thinking or not thinking about education. What is also fascinating is the gender bias that has contributed to the structure of American schools from early on. Women were cheaper than men as teachers and men were needed elsewhere in the west. Initial education faculties developed to train teachers but once the research universities got involves, the emphasis became more of training educational administrators, which still persists as an emphasis. The assumption occasionally stated explicitly was that teaching woman was not the proper focus of university education schools. ...but while the education schools lacked the status of other areas, they were retained because they were money makers that helped to fund the universities. Rigor versus relevance?? Some things never change. Another fascinating aspect of the history is the role of innovation and entrepreneurship. Once some researchers brought to the table the idea that students can develop and improve, innovators emerged with new curricula and course ideas. The US tradition of local control of funding made it necessary to market innovations to local school boards, who might not be informed consumers of research results. Sound familiar? Some good ideas emerge but change is very difficult. These tensions also come in cycles, as the social conditions of education affect what schools do. WW1 leads into the prosperous 1920s and high schools are emerging. Things change in the 1930s due to the depression, and further change during and after WW2 and the launch of Sputnik. Then after the baby boom passes through college, consolidation follows again. It is interesting how Lagemann chronicles the rise of technologies of educational accountability (testing, program evaluation) in the course of these cycles. The same forces are still working today in the push for program assessment as a regular component of accreditation requirements for a wide range of academic areas. A limitation of the book in 2019 is that it was published in 2000 and as a result has little to say about the “reform” movements that have swept the education field since then, including achievement oriented school governance programs like NCLB as well as the movement towards privatization and corporatization, which mixes a variety of educational and political goals. The reasons behind the “troubling” history of education that Professor Lagemann chronicles are deeply grounded in the history of the field and are unlikely to change soon. This is clear if current problem areas in education are looked at with her history as context. This makes it clear to me that her calls are generally good in this fine book. More depressing, however, is that subsequent history has only emphasized how hard these problems are to change and as a result how difficult it will be for education research to prosper going forward. As an observer from another area, I can only hope to learn from this rich story. General readers should be wary about this book. It is a book about the history of education by an educator and seems appropriate for an intro course in a graduate program. There is more than a little academic “inside baseball” in the story that will not be of lasting interest to people not directly involved in the institutional setting. I did not mind it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Brittany

    Lagemann illuminates multiple “troubling” concerns, but a few major factors that stemmed from the historical development include the low reputation of the profession, isolation and funding of the field, a shift to a quantitative focus, and lack of regulation. After presenting a compelling argument for change, Lagemann implies that to improve education, we must improve educational research. Understanding the history and traditions is an importance piece of forward progress. prove what can happen Lagemann illuminates multiple “troubling” concerns, but a few major factors that stemmed from the historical development include the low reputation of the profession, isolation and funding of the field, a shift to a quantitative focus, and lack of regulation. After presenting a compelling argument for change, Lagemann implies that to improve education, we must improve educational research. Understanding the history and traditions is an importance piece of forward progress. prove what can happen in the future. I can now recognize the cultural and political context that affect the field I operate in currently. But the introduction and conclusion provide a good summary for non-educators. Interesting Quotes: "to improve education in enduring ways, we will need to strengthen education research, and to do that, we must change the circumstances that have historically constrained the development of educational study." "the most powerful forces to have shaped educational scholarship over the last century have tended to push the field in unfortunate directions-away from close interactions with policy and practice and toward excessive quantification and scientism." "to overcome the problems that have plagued education research, there will have to be continuing and increased effort to foster a stronger professional community in education" "An appreciation of history may in itself help strengthen the education research community and, through that, play a role in enhancing the capacity of scholarship to empower those who are involved in educating."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Anita

    4.5 stars I am truly grateful for the author's use of easily understood writing style to explain the complexities of education research and the many theories and people who played a part in the discipline's evolution. 4.5 stars I am truly grateful for the author's use of easily understood writing style to explain the complexities of education research and the many theories and people who played a part in the discipline's evolution.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Renbarger

    3 stars because it's pretty subjective and some chapters tend to repeat themselves. However, very enlightening as to why the field sucks so bad :) frustrating not for her writing but for the humans who have not helped education (through research). 3 stars because it's pretty subjective and some chapters tend to repeat themselves. However, very enlightening as to why the field sucks so bad :) frustrating not for her writing but for the humans who have not helped education (through research).

  5. 4 out of 5

    se lee

    Popular passages: I say moreover that you make a great, a very great mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind's laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. - Page 38 Appears in 132 books from 1894-2008 Washington, a department of education, for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several states and territor Popular passages: I say moreover that you make a great, a very great mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind's laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. - Page 38 Appears in 132 books from 1894-2008 Washington, a department of education, for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several states and territories, and of diffusing such information respecting the organization and management of schools and school systems and methods of teaching as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems, and otherwise promote the cause of education... - Page 184 Appears in 538 books from 1856-2005 We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. - Page 173 Appears in 531 books from 1877-2008 The word curriculum is Latin for a race-course, or the race itself — a place of deeds, or a series of deeds. As applied to education, it is that series of things which children and youth must do and experience by way of developing abilities to do the things well that make up the affairs of adult life; and to be in all respects what adults should be. - Page 107 Appears in 35 books from 1916-2006 ... the instruction of persons, both male and female, in the art of teaching and in all the various branches that pertain to a good common school education; also, to give instruction in the mechanic arts, and in the arts of husbandry and agricultural chemistry, in the fundamental laws of the United States, and in what regards the rights and duties of citizens. - Page 5 Appears in 80 books from 1847-2007 That a state normal school be established the exclusive purposes of which shall be the instruction of persons, both male and female, in the art of teaching and in all the various branches that pertain to a good common school education... - Page 5 Appears in 117 books from 1850-2007 A carefully recorded history of the student's school life and of his activities and interests, including results of various types of examinations and other evidence of the quality and quantity of the candidate's work, also scores on scholastic aptitude, achievement, and other diagnostic tests given by the schools during the secondary school course. - Page 140 Appears in 21 books from 1906-2002 Some General Principles of Management Applied to the Problems of City-School Systems... - Page 163 Appears in 42 books from 1912-2008 ... important though not very extensive body of educational literature of philosophical and inspirational character; but there is little of scientific quality. The scientific spirit is just beginning to creep into elementary and secondary schools; and progress is slow, because the conditions are unfavorable. The modern school should be a laboratory from which would issue scientific studies of all kinds of educational problems — a laboratory, first of all, which would test and evaluate critically... - Page 113 Appears in 15 books from 1902-2002 By accepting the unfounded pretensions of so-called professors of education, we have permitted the content of public school instruction to be determined by a narrow group of specialists in pedagogy, well-intentioned men and women, no doubt, but utterly devoid of the qualifications necessary for the task they have undertaken. - Page 159 Appears in 10 books from 1953-2002

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    3.5. dear goodreads, PLEASE GIVE US HALF STARS! thank you. this book is jam packed with relevant, useful information about the history of education research and all of the "fault lines," challenges, and internal conflicts that have plagued the field. some arguments feel a little dated, for example, there has been more research in the last 15 years about the social contexts of education; the technical and individualistic nature of research is becoming less entrenched. mostly, i take a star off be 3.5. dear goodreads, PLEASE GIVE US HALF STARS! thank you. this book is jam packed with relevant, useful information about the history of education research and all of the "fault lines," challenges, and internal conflicts that have plagued the field. some arguments feel a little dated, for example, there has been more research in the last 15 years about the social contexts of education; the technical and individualistic nature of research is becoming less entrenched. mostly, i take a star off because this book is tough to get through - lots of dates, names, etc., and it can be difficult to pull out the important arguments (books like this make me really, REALLY appreciate historians who find a way to present loads of data/dates/etc in an engaging fashion). still, incredibly valuable read for education researchers, university-based or otherwise.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brandon

  8. 4 out of 5

    Christine Leider

  9. 5 out of 5

    Laura

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    Josh

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    Viktoria Viktoria

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    Petemiksza

  13. 4 out of 5

    Todd

  14. 5 out of 5

    Heather Francis

  15. 5 out of 5

    John

  16. 4 out of 5

    Angie Miller

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jaime

  18. 5 out of 5

    Charlie

  19. 4 out of 5

    Esteem Journal

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tim Barczak

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rene

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ugurcan Ozlu

  23. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

  24. 5 out of 5

    Casey Medlock

  25. 5 out of 5

    Josh

  26. 4 out of 5

    Laurie

  27. 5 out of 5

    Chris Maclellan

  28. 4 out of 5

    Fiona MacKellar

  29. 4 out of 5

    Casey Archer

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dianna Dekelaita

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