Academics vs. Practitioners

In a recent post on a Politico article on Who can hook you up with a White House job? Jon Schnur, CEO and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, is listed as one who helped Arne Duncan secure the position of secretary of education. In the article, the author notes:

Philanthropist and Democratic donor Eli Broad, who funds Teach for America and Schnur’s principals program, said he considered Schnur a counterweight against the “bunch of academics” on Obama’s education transition team. Soon after the election, Broad said he told Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that “the education secretary should not be an academic or ex-governor. … He said, ‘I assure you. We’re going to have a practitioner.’” (emphasis mine)


Leaving aside (for this post, anyway) discussion of Arne’s capabilities or whatever claims he might be able to make to his being a “practitioner,” I am deeply disturbed at the assumption that academics are not practitioners. In my experience, that simply isn’t true. Many researchers and university professors were at some point teachers in K-12 classrooms, and remain involved by working on curriculum development projects, conducting research in schools, leading professional development opportunities for teachers and other school staff, and in a host of other ways. In addition, in most schools of education, faculty who do research also teach–they teach future teachers. Just because they aren’t working with children doesn’t mean that they aren’t “practicing” educators, and it doesn’t mean that they turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what is going on in K-12 classrooms; they couldn’t be effective at preparing teachers if they did so.

Even beyond the “are academics practitioners?” question, there’s another deeply worrisome assumption: that only the viewpoints and experiences of the “true” practitioners are valid. This assumption preferences the individual teacher’s experiences–and the knowledge that these experiences provide–above the knowledge that can be gleaned from deep study and years of collaboration between researchers, administrators, and teachers. Let me affirm that I do believe that teacher input and experiences are extremely valuable tools in research and in policy-making. That said, I think that a “practitioner” focus leads to a system which holds that knowledge gained by each individual as they grow as teachers is the most important component to their being able to understand education, student learning, how education system(s) work, and the role of policy in all these arenas. This focus denies the importance of research and the role of higher education in studying schools, in studying how students learn, and in looking at bigger picture issues like state policy or national standards; important work that cannot be done with by a group of teachers, no matter how experienced and knowledgeable they are. They don’t have the resources–or even enough time in the day–to tackle these issues.

Yes, many teachers scoff at research and academe. Or at least see limited practical applications, and perhaps that’s a good goal to shoot for: finding ways to get good research in the hands of teachers in ways that have practical applications, but are not oversimplified, dumbed-down versions of the research.

What are some ways to cross the academic-practitioner/research-teacher divide?

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