Scholars Speaking Collectively to Reframe the Public Debate

Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco discusses the importance of engaged scholarship and reflects on his experiences of working with communities of researchers.

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A decade ago, to a packed general session of the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice, one of my mentors, the late Eric Rofes, rattled the room with his claim that professors occupy an assimilationist profession: we get hired and promoted by writing journal articles that speak to a small group of colleagues, and we actually discourage scholarship that speaks outside of the ivory tower.  We need, he argued, to reframe the identity of the academic so that, central to our work is the goal of significantly impacting practice, policy, and public consciousness.  We need to be public, engaged scholars.

A decade before him, one of my grad school advisors, the fabulous Elizabeth Ellsworth, wrote an essay, “Claiming the Tenured Body,” that illuminated the ways in which academia values the singularity or uniqueness of our work rather than the dialogical nature of knowledge production and the potential of collective action.  Put in conversation with Rofes, her argument makes me wonder what it would look like if university researchers were to place more value on speaking collectively and publicly as scholars to impact the public sector.  

In education, where the rhetoric of so-called reforms contrasts starkly with the realities of what is actually happening in our nation’s schools, such intervention is desperately needed.  

I was living in Chicago at the time of the mayoral election that followed the announcement by Richard J. Daley, the longest serving mayor in Chicago history, that he would not be seeking re-election.  Throughout the fall of 2010 prospective candidates poured out, from career politicians to long-time community activists.  But as campaigns ensued, a notable lack of debate was happening about public schools.  Across the board, candidates seemed to be repeating the same narrative about what’s wrong – people aren’t trying hard enough – and what’s needed –more testing, more accountability, more consequences that differ little from blaming and punishing the victims of broken systems.

In January, as election day approached, a group of Chicago-area researchers came together to strategize a response.  We wanted to challenge the all-too-familiar rhetoric and to re-frame the public debate, that is, we wanted to steer the conversation away from scapegoating individuals to addressing the bigger picture of the systemic problems, and to insist that evidence and research be forefronted in these conversations.  We identified four broad visions, fleshed out with recommended actions, pledges for leaders, and resources for further inquiry, into a working document, Chicago School Reform: Myths, Realities, and New Visions (the statement was revised in 2015 and is available at www.createchicago.org).  The four visions were: Provide bold leadership that addresses difficult systemic problems and avoids scapegoating the “usual suspects”; develop and implement education policy and reform initiatives that are primarily research-driven, not market-driven; improve teaching and learning effectiveness by developing standards, curricula, and assessments that are skills-based, not sorting-based; and ensure the support, dignity, and human and civil rights of every student.

We recruited at least ten researchers in each area who made themselves available to educational leaders, public officials, and the media for elaboration and further dialogue about the accompanying myths and realities, and gathered almost 100 signatories, forming the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE).  Setting the stage was a statement of values concerning public education in a democracy, which emphasized that schools in a democracy should aim to prepare the next generation to be knowledgeable and informed citizens and residents; to be critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers; to be ready to contribute positively to communities and workplaces characterized by diversity; and to be healthy, happy, and able to support the well-being of others with compassion and courage.  We released the statement that March in a public forum with over 200 in attendance, where we highlighted both the work of researchers and the work of several organizations (of students, educators, parents, and community members) to advocate for research-based school reform.  The event and statement received some press coverage, but more importantly, it also led to additional initiatives, including research partnerships with the Chicago Teachers Union, forums for elected leaders, an ongoing series of research briefs and public events, and open letters on various policy issues.

When I moved to San Francisco a couple years ago, I again found myself in the midst of a community of scholars eager to act collectively and leverage our scholarship in order to reframe the public debate and impact educational policy.  We launched a new network last year, called CARE-ED (California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education), and as our first project, submitted in January 2015 an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of several hundred university-based researchers in California to raise concerns about the proposed federal teacher preparation regulations.  We also helped to gather over 2000 signatures from researchers across the United States to raise concerns and make recommendations about the place of testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Both letters have been covered by the media, and provide opportunities for educative conversations not only in public spaces but also within our professions.  

We are currently tackling our next project, and we look forward to continuing to explore the possibilities for improving education when we situate our work in broader social movements for equity and justice.

Kevin Kumashiro is dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education and author of Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture.  @kevinkumashiro

One thought on “Scholars Speaking Collectively to Reframe the Public Debate”

  1. Monisha Bajaj says:

    What a powerful and inspirational blog post! Such good advice for all professors seeking to make impact with their work. Thank you!

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