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AISR senior fellow Warren Simmons delivered the Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2016. In addressing the largest gathering of scholars in the field of education research, Simmons urged researchers to collaborate across disciplines and beyond the borders of academia to produce research that supports a systemic, place-based approach to issues of equity in education.

Below is an excerpt from his remarks, entitled “Increasing the Relevance of Education Research: Building a Place-Based Agenda for Obtaining Equity and Excellence.” (The full remarks are also available on our website.)

The Power of Place

In my recent meetings with superintendents, mayors, K–12 education leaders, adult and youth organizers, philanthropists, and civic leaders, the participants have held out the hope that education research and academe will develop mechanisms that reward scholars for efforts that build educational systems adapted to and reflecting the diversity of communities. But this requires research that recognizes that reform is a political, social, and cultural endeavor as well as a technical one. It requires treating schools and districts as social and cultural organizations, not just collections of teachers, students, and resources responding to a set of goals established from above. Moreover, achieving scale requires a model of education that treats learning as a deeply cultural endeavor that is constructed across schools, students, families and communities, as I learned long ago at the Institute for Comparative Human Cognition in New York City. As a Cuban urban planner recently said to me on a visit to the island:  “Education is the triangle that connects students, families, and society.”

1189 AERA 2016: Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture - Warren Simmons (1:18:05)

As in Cuba, the multiple communities that form our society comprise diverse cultures with competing and sometimes conflicting values about education’s purpose and its role in the development of the students, families, communities, and society. Colorblind and technical approaches to education research and reform in fact use the cultural values of privilege elites as the default touchstones for reform. This stance undermines the ability of students from diverse backgrounds to use their cultures as a resource for learning and as a lens for interrogating differences and similarities.

A Place-Based Approach that Makes Equity Transparent and Systemic

What I am arguing here is that culture and equity are central, not tertiary ingredients of systemic reform, especially at a time when the Southern Education Foundation revealed that 50 percent of our nation’s public school students live in poverty, and that Latino and African American students constitute almost 70 percent of the enrollment in the 68-member districts of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Researchers and educators who treat culture, race, ethnicity and community as secondary rather than central to systemic reform exacerbate the growing concern about the relevance of education research and the utility of an enterprise that does more to advance academic disciplines and scholarly careers than it does to offer insights that strengthen schools, students, families, and communities.

I urge each of you – and all of us – to discuss how we can strengthen our work and build an educational research infrastructure that supports a comprehensive, culturally responsive and place-based approach to reform. There are many positive examples to build on that often operate outside the education reform mainstream, such as the National Writing Project, the National Equity Project, the Schott Foundation, the aforementioned Southern Education Foundation, and the Panasonic Foundations as exemplars, along with AISR’s efforts to support education organizing.

There are also opportunities for research to inform a growing number of community-based efforts to use technology and the visual/performing/culinary arts as resources to support student, family, and community development, such as those undertaken by DreamYard, Harlem School for the Arts, Collective Shift’s LRNG, and the Urban Philanthropists Network. These efforts would welcome the support of education researchers, centers and institutes to serve as partners and to work across disciplines, systems and cultures.

Warren Simmons is the former executive director and current senior fellow at AISR.