A Sociologist's Place in Educational Reform

Sunday, August 9, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

On Friday the Sociology of Education section of the American Sociological Association held a small conference in San Francisco specifically focused on the role of the sociologist in educational reform. Organized by some of the section’s smartest young thinkers including Mitchell Stevens, Amy Binder, and Elizabeth Armstrong, the meeting was refreshingly thought-provoking. Not everyone in attendance was one of the usual suspects—for example, Tom Toch appeared to give a great talk on school reform.

Central to the day’s discussions was a topic near and dear to my heart: Can, and should, a sociologist of education conduct relevant educational research and try to have an impact on educational reform? Is the academic’s place in the academy, or in the schools? Even if a professor desires to become involved with policy and practice, is her voice welcomed? Considered? Or, as so many (but not all) seemed to suggest, are those efforts a waste of time given that economists appear to dominate policy discussions in ways we can't compete with? Are we simply better off sticking to addressing the "how and why" questions, leaving those questions of greater immediate importance—questions of causal impact, for example—to those who are professionally rewarded for applied research? Sociologists who want tenure, the more senior folks tended to say, need to bring education to sociology—to make contributions to their discipline. Others argued for the sociologist to focus on bringing that perspective to education—making contributions to educational reform.

Obviously the debate is moot if only one approach merits tenure—if the latter kind of work isn’t rewarded, those doing it cannot remain in the academy. So right now, it's most common for sociologists to make the academic work the center of their agenda, and do the more applied stuff on the side—like a hobby. But is it time for this to change? Can, and should, more applied sociological research on education be rewarded in the tenure and promotion processes? I can report there’s very little consensus among my colleagues in this regard, and that differences of opinion are not entirely explained by professional or generational status. However, what’s most remarkable is how impassioned grad students, assistant profs, and tenured professors all are about this issue. Strong opinions abound—and a willingness to engage in debate pervades. That, in and of itself, is exciting.

ps. If you'd like to read a graduate student's perspective on what transpired at that meeting, I encourage you to check out Corey Bower's blog (see the post I'm linking to, as well as ones before and after it).