The Curry School is engaging in an ongoing conversation about the role of its faculty in public debates about education. Dean Bob Pianta’s recent commentary (Academics Can’t Shy Away From Public Role) summarizes his philosophy. A recent article in the Curry Alumni Magazine highlights the thinking of some of our faculty members on the topic: Ed Scientists in a Public Role: Influence v. Objectivity.

It’s no accident that ten U.Va. faculty members made the Education Week’s 2015 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings (all associated in some way with the Curry School). We wanted to extend the conversation to the three Curry alumni who also appeared in the rankings among the top 200 academics who “contribute most substantially to public debates about education.” 

They responded to three questions and added additional comments as they saw fit:

  • Is it a conscious goal for you to take part in the public debate about education policy and practice?
  • What kind of responsibility do you feel to move scientific evidence about education more into the public consciousness?
  • What medium are you using most to contribute substantially to public debates about education that are considered by the Edu-Scholar rankings?

Jonathan PluckerJonathan Plucker

Ph.D. ’95 Ed Psych: Rsrch Stats & Eval
Endowed Professor of Neag School of Education
University of Connecticut

Edu-Scholar Ranking: 91

Plucker’s work focuses on education policy and talent development.

Plucker’s Webpage
Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanPlucker

I’ve always enjoyed writing op-eds, speaking to public groups, etc., but it became a conscious goal when I began working on education policy. If you want to study policy, you can do that out of the public eye, but if you want to help ensure that policy is being made in empirically-guided ways, you really need to be engaged.

The national, education policy discourse tends to be dominated by researchers and commentators at big think tanks, whose jobs are to engage full-time in these public debates. In order for academics to have similar impact, they have to participate in the debates as much as possible. When we choose not to participate, policy discussions are dominated by people who can have pretty extreme views (and views that are often about ideology more than evidence).

Academics can have only so much impact – most of us can’t focus full time on blogging and Twitter, for example – but any effort we make helps shape education in positive ways. As I tell my students, everyone concerned with children and education has a stake in education policy; you can choose not to get involved, but then you can’t complain too much when you see poorly thought-out policies being created and implemented.

I readily admit that the rankings influence my professional activities. I was surprised when the first list appeared in 2011 and I was included. The formula weights seniority, books, and social media presence heavily. Seniority is starting to work in my favor, but I don’t work in areas where books are a big deal, and social media was something I viewed as a fun thing to do if I have time.

The rankings made me sit down and think about where I spend my time, and how I needed to make changes in how I was engaging in the public sphere. I work on more book projects now, and I take at least a few minutes each day to engage with people via social media. I find the shift in priorities to be a nice change of pace, and there’s no question that I’ve become more involved in some of the big education debates.

Some people scoff at such rankings, but they have their place. Is every highly engaged, successful faculty member on the list? Of course not. But the ranking has helped foster the idea that faculty in a very applied discipline should be applauded for putting themselves out there.

Curry alumni should be very proud of the number of U.Va. faculty on the list. Such a large group of publicly engaged faculty at a public university education school, even one as prestigious as the Curry School, is quite rare, and it speaks well to the national influence of Curry faculty. Of course, local, state, and regional engagement don’t factor into this list, so the work noted in the ranking is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the School’s influence.

It’s also worth noting that it takes strong leadership to promote public engagement, as many of these activities – social networking, writing op-eds, giving testimony – aren’t things that get you promoted at many universities. But Dean Pianta and his leadership team place a strong value on engaging with the public, which results in a highly active, highly visible school of education.

Patrick McGuinnPatrick McGuinn

M.Ed. ’01 Ed Policy
Associate Professor of Political Science
Drew University

Edu-Scholar Ranking: 151

McGuinn’s research interests are in national politics and institutions, education and social welfare policy, American political development, federalism, and the policy making process.

McGuinn’s Website

Absolutely it’s a conscious decision to be a publicly engaged scholar and to try and use my research to educate the public and to inform public policy.  Unfortunately, policy makers  all too often don’t have the time or inclination to access the research and experts that would enable them to make more informed decisions.  Rectifying that problem is the goal of a new national organization, the Scholars Strategy Network, founded by Theda Skocpol at Harvard; I’m the co-president of the New Jersey chapter and just met with Senator Cory Booker’s staff to see how we can support their work.  I’m also a senior research specialist at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which similarly works to disseminate scholarship to a broader audience.

I was very fortunate to be mentored at Curry by [former faculty member] Rick Hess [now at the American Enterprise Institute and compiler of the Edu-Scholar Rankings]. He instilled in me the importance of bringing a critical, objective, and empirical eye to education policy debates—to move beyond the charged ideological rhetoric and idealistic wishful thinking that swirl around school reform.  As a former high school social studies teacher and now the father of four daughters who attend public schools, I think it’s crucial the scholars communicate not only with other scholars, but with policymakers and the broader public as well.

I publish in a wide variety of venues, from traditional academic books and journals to op-eds, and have written eight policy reports for the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  I am also a regular commentator on education policy and politics in media outlets such as Education Week, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and the NJ Star Ledger.   My most recent book (co-edited with Paul Manna) was Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform (Brookings Institution Press, 2013).

I am currently working on a new book project with another Curry alum, Chris Loss (M.Ed. ’00 Soc Fdns; Ph.D. ’07 Higher Ed, and now at Vanderbilt), called Convergence, that looks at the ways in which the K-12 and higher education sectors are (and are not) converging and the implications of these developments.  (The volume is under contract at Harvard Education Press, and Curry professor Josipa Roksa is one of the contributors.)

I also was an invited presenter at the Education Writers Association Annual Meeting last year and testify as an expert witness when new policies are being debated and evaluated, such as at a N.J. Senate Education Committee hearing on the state’s new teacher evaluation system and at a Government Accountability Office hearing in Washington, DC, examining state and district capacity to implement the Race to the Top federal education competitive grant program.

Douglas ReadyDouglas Ready

M.Ed. ’97 Soc Fdns
Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy
Teachers College, Columbia University

Edu-Scholar Ranking: 195

Ready researches the links between education policy, social policy, and educational equity.

Ready’s Webpage

One can define the “public” in “public debate” many ways. For example, work with school districts and state departments can influence public debates surrounding education policy, even though we typically think of these groups as being on the frontlines of practice and not necessarily the “public.” But in terms of the more traditional notion of the public, I enjoy engaging with the popular press, online media and other public venues. Sometimes I initiate the debate, while other times the debate finds me.

My colleague Amy Stuart Wells and I recently completed a study of suburban school segregation and willingly dove into the debate by writing op-eds for several major newspapers, including the Washington Post. An example of the media initiating coverage occurred with some research I was doing on Teach for America (TfA), which was very controversial in this particular community.

One lesson I’ve learned from these engagements is that some topics lend themselves to thoughtful public discourse better than others. As one might expect, the online responses to the pieces on school segregation were not always the most informed, and many of the ensuing discussion chains were simply disheartening. Among TfA supporters who replied to the news reports I was anti-reform, and among TfA detractors I was anti-union. But the truth is that if topics don’t raise some hackles, the media likely wouldn’t be covering them in the first place.

As many others have noted, the bottom line is that the academy still places strong emphasis on the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books. I think higher education increasingly values public engagement, but not at the expense of what it has traditionally rewarded.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Jonathan Plucker photo by Kip May