Book review: Research and educational leadership

Research and educational leadership: Navigating the new national research council guidelines.
Fenwick W. English and Gail C. Furman, Eds.
Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Education. 2007
UCEA Leadership Series: University Council for Educational Administration.

In 2002 the National Research Council published “Scientific Research in Education,” which proposed six “design principles” to nurture a scientific culture within education research. Bruce Alberts, then president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote that the report offered “a comprehensive perspective of ‘scientifically-based’ education research “for the policy communities who are increasingly interested in its utilization for improving education policy and practice.” Within the diverse field of education, he continued, “researchers who often disagree along philosophical and methodological lines nonetheless share much common ground about the definition and pursuit of quality. This report should therefore be useful for researchers, as well as for those who use research.”
The NRC report set forth six standards. Education research should:
· pose significant questions that can be investigated empirically
· link research to relevant theory
· use methods that permit direct investigation of the question
· provide a coherent and explicit chain of reasoning
· replicate and generalize across studies
· disclose research to encourage professional scrutiny and critique.

A new book, “Research and Educational Leadership: Navigating the new national research council guidelines” responds to and takes issue with that report. While the authors agree with NRC’s call for enhanced research rigor, they doubt the ability of strict empirical research to generate insightful recommendations on educational leadership.

Co-editor Fenwick English is professor of educational leadership in the School of Education at the U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In his essay, English argues that leadership must be evaluated in context, and that leadership is as much an art as a science. The art of leadership is highly situational and is centered on performance, he says. The “input-output’ model commonly used in school effect studies is inappropriate. Because strict empiricism has blind spots and is unable to think outside its own self-imposed limitations, English argues, it’s not a realistic approach for evaluating leadership quality.

Co-editor Gail C. Furman is professor and program coordinator of the Educational Leadership program at Washington State U. Her essay discusses the constructivist view of educational leadership: Leadership is distributed among educators in specific school sites and is constructed by them as they work together toward their goals. In this view leadership is a shared, context-bound, dynamic phenomenon, that responds to site-specific conditions. Furman says this “new narrative” of educational leadership requires a different way of understanding leadership practice. It suggests research approaches that are incompatible with the version of “scientific” research privileged in current federal education policy.

Linda Tillman, U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, argues that strict adherence to the NRC’s six principles overlooks racially and culturally sensitive research frameworks and marginalizes researchers who don’t use quantitative methods. The principles can impede research on significant topics such as school reform, the education of special populations, and the achievement gap, as they relate to African Americans. Strict adherence to the guidelines would likely mean a continued marginalization of research on African Americans in school leadership, she argues. Culturally sensitive research frameworks produce findings that can be useful to African Americans and other leaders of color who face the complex task of leading in diverse school contexts.

Carolyn Riehl, Columbia University, argues that no single form of leadership will likely be effective in all contexts. She asks whether new research should aim to help leaders “recapitulate modernity’s quest for rationality, certainty, and the hope for progress.” Or should it help them “learn to live more comfortably with randomness, unsolvable dilemmas, and the interplay of spirit, body, and mind?” The federal government, she argues, seems intent on focusing researchers’ attention on particular forms of research that can provide convincing evidence for the most efficient and effective ways of generating desired outcomes. If research can specify effective educational strategies, it’s assumed that practitioners can easily adopt and use these practices.

Michelle Young, U of Missouri-Columbia, addresses the growing practice of researchers publishing their findings without peer review. Two common reasons they cite are the improved timeliness of press releases over peer-reviewed journals and the desire to influence policymaking. Because ‘fugitive studies’ continue to be released, Young says, national professional organizations (perhaps AERA) should establish an independent research review board to help ensure that “even researchers who disregard elements of widely accepted research standards are held accountable.”

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