How has education research come to have such low status in academia and so little influence on policy and practice? Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, an educational historian and the current president of the Spencer Foundation, sets out to answer this question in her insightful and illuminating book, An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research. She chronicles how education research emerged as a field of study in the United States during the late nineteenth century, how it evolved over the course of the twentieth century, and how various individuals, institutions, and historical circumstances contributed to this evolution. Although organized more or less chronologically, An Elusive Science is an interpretive history and, as such, Lagemann is less concerned with being comprehensive than with presenting a well-argued analysis that can inform current problems facing educational scholarship.
In telling her history, Lagemann discusses many of the major figures who helped shape the field — G. Stanley Hall, John Dewey, Edward L. Thorndike, Ellwood P. Cubberley, Lewis M. Terman, Ralph W. Tyler, Jerome Bruner, and James S. Coleman, among others. Lagemann’s sympathies clearly rest with John Dewey and his view of education and educational inquiry as fundamentally social. She views the failure of Dewey’s ideas to catch on within the education research field as a missed opportunity and wonders what would have happened had he stayed at the University of Chicago and systematically analyzed his work at the Laboratory School there. Lagemann also documents the role that a few central institutions — for example, the University of Chicago, Teachers College, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the National Institute of Education — played in shaping the field.
Several themes run through Lagemann’s history of education. One is the connection between education research’s low status and the feminization of teaching during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Much of the low status of education research, Lagemann asserts, stems from its historic association with “woman’s work” (p. 3). Also, as an applied field, it had less status in higher education institutions than pure, or theoretical, fields.
A second theme is the role that both status-seeking and money-seeking played in forming the character of education research. These two pursuits pulled education researchers (or “educationists”) in different directions. In practice, status-seeking involved attempting to make the field more “scientific.” This led to an emphasis on measurement, quantitative analysis, and narrow, behaviorist conceptions of education. Education researchers also tried to gain status by promoting a top-down model of knowledge transmission. In this model, there was a strict separation between those who produced knowledge about education and those who used it. Researchers would generate the knowledge and then dispense it to administrators, who would then use it to tell teachers what to do. This hierarchical arrangement was also a gendered one, since most researchers and administrators were male, while most teachers were female.
In order to pay the bills, many education researchers, who worked in a poorly funded discipline, also had to seek funding. One way of doing this was to work as a consultant for school districts and their administrators. Opportunities for this type of work abounded, for during the early part of the twentieth century school systems faced exploding student enrollments and the challenge of educating an increasingly diverse student population. Some education researchers thus became involved in more practical matters, although interestingly enough, this also led to narrow research pursuits. Rather than conducting research that led to deep insights into the problems of educational practice, educationists, inspired by the ideas of scientific management that were in vogue at the time, tended to engage in “social bookkeeping,” or the census-like collection of data on school conditions. This type of research was descriptive rather than analytical.
A third theme in the book is the role that major historical events — World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War — played in shaping the course of education research. The two world wars, for instance, stimulated interest in intelligence testing and sorting. Later, the Great Society’s enlargement of the federal government’s role in education created a demand for program evaluation.
An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research is not perfect. For example, Lagemann uses the term science rather loosely and does not provide a clear working definition. In addition, by organizing the book around the careers of specific researchers and the roles of particular institutions, Lagemann somewhat obscures broader changes in the field that might not have been attributable to, or exemplified by, any in her cast of characters. The book does not, for instance, explore the influence that technology might have played in the evolution of education research. How have changes in the tools available to researchers influenced the types of research they have conducted? The book also does not, until the very end and rather cursorily, discuss how changes in conceptions of knowledge affected education and all social science research. Finally, at certain times the reader may feel that the analysis draws upon a relatively narrow group of individuals or institutions. Perhaps these were indeed the leaders who shaped the field during its early years. However, one wonders what would have resulted from an analysis of dissertation topics or journal articles and how they changed over the decades. What types of research were being conducted outside of the few elite institutions?
Of course, writing any history involves making selections and drawing boundaries. As Lagemann herself acknowledges, she could very well have written a different history of education research. Individuals interested in the history of academic disciplines, in U.S. history in general, or in the history of higher education should be thankful that she wrote the one she did.