Voices in Education

The Little Engine That Could
When Helen Featherstone agreed in 1985 to be the editor of a new newsletter based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there was no such thing as e-mail, listservs, Google, RSS feeds, or Twitter.

A researcher and author who would become a tenured professor of education at Michigan State University, Featherstone recalls that the vision for the new Harvard Education Letter was to simply “bridge the world of research and practice.” Writers would summarize the research on classroom trends and practices, and evaluate its worthiness for the “intelligent layman.”

Featherstone remembers vigorous internal debates with board members: What topics would readers want to them to tackle? What research was worthy enough to take up valuable space in the scant eight pages allotted for the new bimonthly? “We had to figure out, what would practitioners be interested in; what did they not already know?”

Working only part-time with help from one other staffer as well as a national and a local advisory board, Featherstone published articles on the value of homework, collaborative learning, and dual language immersion. A story on bullying had the most impact, she thinks: “At the time we did it, nobody else was talking about it and there wasn’t much research.”

To her, the newsletter was “the little engine that kept on pushing.”

It pushed when the reading wars heated up in the early 90s. Editor Ed Miller went out to find where researchers stood on practices like invented spelling.

“There were some horrible examples of people who had taken the idea to absurd lengths,” he recalls, “but the idea of it, when you talked to someone like Carol Chomsky, was brilliant and wonderful and obviously right.” He thinks about that story even today as a senior researcher at the Alliance for Childhood. (Chomsky, a noted linguist, researcher and Harvard faculty member, died in 2008.)

Miller often wonders: “Why is it that the people like Carol Chomsky, who have spent their lives looking at children and how they really learn, are completely left out of the political debate on education?”

Editor Michael Sadowski tackled the unexamined: what did researchers know about the commonalities between African American and Latino students who were high-achieving, as well as those who were struggling in school? Sadowski, who now teaches teachers at Bard College, has kept up the search for the real story behind the rhetoric du jour, most recently in his much-discussed story questioning “the boy crisis” published in the Harvard Education Letter in July.

Other editors made important contributions as well—too many to list in a blog.

Most recently—in three out of the last four years-- under the editorial leadership of Caroline Chauncey, the newsletter won “Best Education Newsletter” from the Association of Educational Publishers. Caroline’s patient insistence on quality and relevance to practitioners also resulted in numerous awards for individual articles, including a seminal piece on why teaching vocabulary to young children is so important and another on the growing influential role of economists in education policy. It was Caroline who conceived and shaped a highly original essay series, “Looking Back, Looking Forward,” designed to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of what Helen Featherstone began.

On July 1, 2010, I became the ninth editor of the Ed Letter, as we like to call it here in the office. It’s still published bimonthly in print; it’s still eight pages—and its original mission is still as important and pertinent as ever. When I click back through our electronic archive (become a subscriber and you can, too), I am amazed at the variety and depth of the articles representing the collective wisdom of the best of the best in each field, all gathered in one place.

Yes, it’s a 24/7 digital world now and people who work in education have instant access to a lot more information than they did in 1985. But we are not just consumers of information, we are “drinking it from a hose,” to quote one of my former professors, Todd Rose. Type the phrase “research on homework” into a Google search, and you’ll get 19.5 million hits. Really, who’s going wade through that? Turn on the television news and you’ll hear all manner of punditry from the right and from the left, but precious few facts.

The times are different; yet the need is the same. Teachers, principals and superintendents are under pressure and busier than ever. They need a quick and trustworthy place to go when that inevitable question arises at a staff or school board meeting: “What does the research say about that?”

So that’s what we’ll continue to do at the Ed Letter, in print and, now, also on the Web: translate, boil down, cut through the chaff to bring the best of education research on timely topics to you in an easy-to-read format.

We’ll continue to be that little engine.

Let us know what topics you’d like to read about. If there’s research you think is important, let us know that too, as we steam ahead into the next quarter century.

In the meantime, hats off to my predecessors in this job. I’ve got some big shoes to fill. If you have any advice for me, I’d love to hear it.

Editors of the Harvard Education Letter

Helen Featherstone, editor, 1985–1987
Adria Steinberg, 1988–1993
Edward Miller, 1993–1996
Karen Maloney, 1996
Kelly Graves-Desai, 1996–2000
David T. Gordon, 2000–2004
Michael Sadowski, 2004–2005
Caroline Chauncey, 2005–2010
Nancy Walser, 2010–


About the Author: Nancy Walser is editor of the Harvard Education Letter and the author of The Essential School Board Book.