quality quantityI very recently finished my service as editor of Sociology of Education(SOE)¹—the global flagship journal of this subfield, one of the best journals in both sociology and education research. In that capacity, I read nearly 800 of your new and revised manuscripts—roughly one every weekday for three years—but had room to accept for publication only about 50 them.

Eric Grodsky asked me to share with you my sense of the subfield after reading all of those manuscripts. I am going to give you my honest assessment because I care deeply about education research.  I believe that as a subfield we are capable of making meaningful contributions to the scientific understanding of what education is, how it works, for whom it works and for whom it does not work, and what our society can do to improve it.

In short, I do not believe we are living up to our collective potential.

When I started as editor, I worried that the biggest challenge would be this: How will I choose from among all the great submissions? How will I select just the four or five best articles to publish in each quarterly issue?  That worry was based on my sense that a high percentage of submissions would be—or could, with modest revision, become—publishable.

In fact, I consistently had exactly the opposite problem. For each of the 12 issues I published, I struggled to find four high-quality publishable manuscripts. During my first year as editor, SOE had an extra page allocation from ASA²; I did not fill all the extra pages because there were not enough acceptable papers. In all three years, I pressed authors to write more concisely so that I could fit a fifth article in each issue; only once did I succeed in finding five publishable papers³. I am very proud of the articles that appeared in SOE during my three years as editor—and of their topical, methodological, and theoretical diversity—but I leave the journal deeply dismayed at the state of the subfield. I am somewhat dismayed that there were so few high-quality papers.  I am more dismayed that there were so many lesser-quality ones.

Most of the papers that I read had one or both of two basic problems:

First, a large percentage of papers had fundamental research design flaws. Basic methodological problems—of the sort that ought to earn a graduate student a B- in their first-year research methods course—were fairly common4. (More surprising to me, by the way, was how frequently reviewers seemed not to notice such problems.) I’m not talking here about trivial errors or minor weaknesses in research designs; no research is perfect. I’m talking about problems that undermined the author’s basic conclusions. Some of these problems were fixable, but many were not.

Second, and more surprising to me: Most papers simply lacked a soul—a compelling and well-articulated reason to exist. The world (including the world of education) faces an extraordinary number of problems, challenges, dilemmas, and even mysteries.  Yet most papers failed to make a good case for why they were necessary. Many analyses were not well motivated or informed by existing theory, evidence, or debates. Many authors took for granted that readers would see the importance of their chosen topic, and failed to connect their work to related issues, ideas, or discussions. Over and over again, I kept asking myself (and reviewers also often asked): So what?

I gradually came to understand that (1) many authors just hadn’t yet fully thought through the “so what?” questions and (2) many authors were submitting papers long before they had fully worked through crucial issues related to research design, quality of evidence, and coherence of argument. They didn’t do a great job of motivating their questions because they weren’t yet fully sure how their work fit in the larger scheme of things.  They hadn’t thought through the “so what?” of their findings because they hadn’t had time to fully make sense of them.  They made assumptions or mistakes in their research design and analyses—just like everyone does in the early iterations of a project and paper—but they submitted their papers anyway.

I think there are two related explanations for why the vast majority of SOE submissions over the past three years were simply not all that great and did not live up to their potential.  First, junior scholars are under far too much pressure to quickly publish lots and lots of papers. The problem is that it takes time and thought and trial and error to generate a really compelling research question and to deeply understand how to articulate the importance of that question. Then, it takes more time and thought and trial and error to come to a really convincing answer to that question, to fully develop the argument or story, and to write a manuscript that does justice to the value of the research. Unfortunately, junior scholars do not have enough time or enough room to think or make missteps. Graduate students must publish frequently—while still in graduate school—to complete for fellowships and professional jobs. Assistant professors must publish early and often to get tenure; associate professors must do the same to “make full.”  In each case, the pressure is to work quickly and efficiently. They have to get papers out for review as soon as possible, even if they really haven’t had the time to think them through or sharpen their argument or evidence. Quantity matters most, not quality. The incentive is to publish a dozen “just OK” papers rather than to publish four or five well-developed and higher-quality papers.  The collective result for the subfield: a mass of underdeveloped papers that often have some potential but really aren’t acceptable for publication in high-quality journals5.  These are papers that exist for the sake of being papers because the author is under pressure to write lots of papers.  I sincerely empathize with those authors—I once was one, and I socialize and work closely with many of them. Senior scholars in the subfield bear the responsibility for this state of affairs; they are in a position to change it.There simply has to be a better way to run a profession.

Second, junior scholars are not as well trained, mentored, or supported as they need to be. Partly, this goes back to the pressures to publish early and often. But partly, this is the collective fault of graduate training programs and junior faculty mentoring programs (and thus, again, of the senior scholars who lead those programs). Collectively, we simply need to do a better job of training, mentoring, and supporting junior scholars. Standards and expectations need to be higher, but junior scholars need to be given the resources—including time and mentoring—required to meet them. The subfield needs to be more innovative and energetic in designing creative ways to improve training and scholarship.

The modal SOE submission during my three years as editor was written by a junior scholar, had non-trivial methodological problems, and lacked a compelling theoretical or substantive rationale for having been written. This is despite the fact that the authors were well-intentioned, were extremely bright, and worked hard at their craft. Virtually every paper had some kernel of real potential in one way or another—some creative idea, some new insight, some thoughtful new approach—but far too often that potential was not realized. All of this represents, to my mind, a waste of resources—including authors’ time and energy and frequently tax-payers’ money. And, it doesn’t help any of us move closer to addressing the problems, challenges, dilemmas, and mysteries that we all face in education and our broader society.

Nobody asked for my views on how to fix these problems, but here they are anyway. First, sociology departments, education schools and their kin need to de-emphasize thequantity of published papers in making hiring and promotion decisions. Second, those units and fields need to primarily reward the quality of publications. Third, we all need to be more energetic, more creative, and more collective-minded in training, mentoring, and supporting junior scholars.  To be clear: The onus of implementing these badly-needed changes falls on senior scholars.  Junior scholars are appropriately and understandably focused on their own careers.  It falls on senior scholars to transform incentive structures—rewarding quality over quantity—and to provide junior scholars with the time and support they need to do better research and write better papers.


1 Although my name is on the masthead as editor for the rest of 2016, incoming editor Linda Renzulli took over the day-to-day operations of the journal on July 1.
2 That’s right: In the 21st century ASA still thinks in terms of printed page allocations and mailing costs.
3 One possibility is that I was too harsh a judge of submissions.  Maybe, but: About one in seven authors of new submissions was invited to revise and resubmit their manuscripts, most revised papers were subsequently accepted for publication, and I did ultimately publish at least four papers per issue.
4 The most common questions I wished authors had asked themselves before they submitted their papers included: Is this the best group of people to study in order to achieve my research objectives?  How should I measure key concepts, and what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of those measures?  Does the evidence I have presented speak directly to my questions or hypotheses?  Does that evidence adequately support my arguments, claims, and conclusions?  Am I making causal claims, and if I so does my evidence support such claims? If I am comparing multiple groups, have I actually compared those groups?
5 This is not to say that as editor I expected papers to be acceptable and publishable right out of the starting gate.  I invited the authors of about 13% of new manuscripts to revise and resubmit their papers based on reviewers’ and my own comments.  I know that a big part of the job of a journal editor is to identify promising papers and help them become higher-quality published articles.  Like I said, I’m very proud of the papers I published.

[This article is reposted with permission from Rob Warren’s blog.]

Photo courtesy of Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr.
Education activists lack resources for dealing with burnout. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr.

Social justice activists are susceptible to emotional exhaustion from their work. Because of this, education researchers Paul Gorski and Cher Chen were interested in learning about supports that could better sustain social justice education advocates, which could thereby better sustain social justice educational movements.

Noting a lack of research on the burnout of activists working for educational justice, they conducted a qualitative study of 14 social justice education activists (for whom activism was not their paid work) to examine the symptoms and impact of burnout as well as the resources available for coping with and recovering from burnout.  

Through interviews, the authors found that symptoms of burnout were high, including sustained emotional and psychological exhaustion, chronic physical ailments, and hopelessness. Because there were few sources of support for addressing burnout, these activists either disengaged or almost quit their respective movements. Particularly, activists of color experienced racism within the movement, which hastened their burnout. Additionally, activists felt guilty if they took time for self-care or talked about burnout due to the culture of martyrdom promoted within educational activist spaces. These social justice education advocates desired more resources for support to help sustain their activism.

The authors assert that the well-being of activists is vital to the health of social justice movements. They recommend open dialogue within social justice education movements about burnout, its symptoms, and resources for support.

You can read the full article here:

Gorski, Paul C., and Cher Chen. 2015. “Frayed All Over:” The Causes and Consequences of Activist Burnout Among Social Justice Education Activists. Educational Studies, 51(5): 385-405.

A child’s racial/ethnic background influences whether his or her behavior problems are medicated or punished. 

1. What lead you to do this research? 

A growing number of U.S. children are being suspended or expelled. Meanwhile, children are increasingly prescribed therapy and/or medication for medically diagnosed behavior problems. Moreover, these patterns are different for children from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. Do school punishment and therapy/medication influence criminal justice and mental health systems involvement later in life?

2. What should everybody know about what you found?

I use nationally-representative, prospective panel data following 3,274 males from childhood through young adulthood. I find that school punishment before the age of fifteen is associated with involvement in the criminal justice system, but not the mental health system. Using therapy/medication during childhood is associated with involvement in the mental health system, but not the criminal justice system. While the relationship between punishment and the criminal justice system is similar across racial/ethnic groups, the connection between medicalized social control during childhood and adulthood is stronger for Whites than non-Whites. Because young Black males have higher rates of suspension/expulsion, they disproportionately face the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which forced school removal increases the risk of criminal involvement and incarceration later in life. Meanwhile, Whites may use medicalization during childhood to avoid the “school-to-prison pipeline” via the mental health system.

3. What are you going to do next on this topic?

I am comparing the effects of punishment and medicalization on short- and long-term academic performance and behavior. I hope to better understand the mechanisms through which suspension/expulsion and therapy/medication contribute to involvement in the criminal justice or mental health systems.  These may include school failure, changes in attitudes, and behavioral improvements or impairments.
You can read the full article here:

Ramey, David M. 2016. “The Influence of Early School Punishment and Therapy/Medication on Social Control Experiences During Young Adulthood.” Criminology 54(1).

Photo via The Daily Herald.
How history teachers talk about the past influences students’ understanding of its connection to the present. Photo via The Daily Herald.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement has reinstated racial relations as a leading topic of national conversation. Yet the U.S. is not alone in its struggles to account for a long history of racial oppression nor in employing seemingly race-neutral discourses to deny the ongoing existence of racism. To explore how individuals are socialized into accepting these views in post-apartheid South Africa, Chana Teeger takes an in-depth look at what goes on in 9th grade history classes.

Teeger observed classrooms daily for five months, analyzed notes distributed by teachers, and interviewed 170 teachers and students about how and why children are taught to disregard the lasting effects of apartheid. She found that teachers told “both sides of the story” to prevent race-based conflict in the classroom. In these “color-blind” lessons, teachers downplayed the racialized coding of victims and perpetrators by emphasizing that not all whites were perpetrators and not all blacks were victims. As one teacher explained, when race denotes neither culpability nor victimhood, students are less likely to make claims about racial inequality which could lead to classroom hostility.

Teeger argues that teachers’ avoidance of class discussions about who benefited from the de jure segregation of apartheid discourages students from seeing the continuity between the past and present. Further, it delegitimizes black students’ claims about racism in school and assuages white students’ feelings of guilt and shame. The use of these lessons helps to reproduce ideologies that contribute to racial privilege for dominant groups.

You can read the full article here:

Teeger, Chana. 2015. “Both Sides of the Story”: History Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa. American Sociological Review, 80(6), 1175-1200.


Photo via Roy Blumenthal.
School punishment is one explanation for the racial achievement gap that is often overlooked. Photo via Roy Blumenthal.

Racial achievement gaps in the U.S. are stunning. According to 2015 NCES data, 43% of White 8th graders were proficient in math, while only 13% of Black students and 19% of Hispanic students tested at this level. A similar gap exists for reading, with 44% of White 8th grade students testing proficient, 21% of Hispanic students, and only 16% of Black students. While scholars offer numerous explanations for racial achievement gaps, Edward Morris and Brea Perry explore one explanation that is often overlooked: school punishment.

Morris and Perry use the Kentucky School Discipline Study (KSDS), which includes school records and supplementary data from parents in a large, urban public school district, to determine if school suspension increases the racial achievement gap in math and reading scores. Their sample included 16,248 students in grades 6 through 10, from 17 schools, over a period of three years. The authors test the association of race and suspensions, measure change in test scores over time, and predict test scores based on early and repeated suspensions.

The authors find that African American and Latino students are more likely to be suspended than Whites and Asians in the same school, and that suspensions–even just one–are related to a lower achievement growth rate over time. Finally, the authors determine that punishment accounts for approximately one-fifth of Black-White differences in test scores. Thus, the racial achievement gap is partially explained by a disproportionate use of school punishment for Black and Latino students.

Read the full article here:

Edward W. Morris, and Brea L. Perry, The Punishment Gap: School Suspension and Racial Disparities. Social Problems, 2016.

female teacher double helix
Having more female high school teachers in STEM fields may foster girls’ success in math and science. Photo via Masterfile.

Women and African Americans have made major gains in social position in the U.S., but racial and gender disparities in STEM occupations remain persistent. A  U.S. Department of Commerce 2011 report notes that while women hold almost half of all jobs in the U.S., they hold just 24% of STEM jobs. A 2013 Census report noted that in 2011 11% of the workforce was black while only 6% of STEM workers were black.

Stearns and colleagues wanted to understand how high school context influences students’ post-high school intentions. In addition, they sought to understand how the racial and gender composition of math and science teachers pre-college might influence students’ choice of college major.

The researchers followed 16,300 college-bound North Carolina public school students from seventh grade through college graduation and analyzed how the racial and gender makeup of the teacher population in middle and high schools affected students’ major declaration and degree field. They found that a greater proportion of female math and science teachers increased the probability that a young woman declares a STEM major and graduates with a STEM degree.  This relationship did not exist for men or for African American students.

So, in other words, female teachers in science and math can transcend traditional associations between success in those fields and masculinity, and may push girls to challenge these stereotypes. For young women who pursue STEM degrees, pre-college experiences are an important influence on career aspirations.

You can read the full article here:

Elizabeth Stearns,, Martha Cecilia Bottía, Eleonora Davalos, Roslyn Mickelson, Stephanie Moller, & Lauren Valentino. (2016). Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls’ Success in STEM. Social Problems, 63(1), 87-110.

Despite their broad interests, nearly half of Stanford and Harvard grads choose just three careers. Photo via cdn.sheknows.com.

Elite college students have widely varying interests and aspirations, right? So, how do you explain nearly half of Harvard and Stanford’s 2014 graduates choosing to pursue jobs in only three economic sectors: financial services, management consulting, and technology? To answer this question and better understand how upper-tier universities form a pipeline to such a narrow range of prestigious careers, Amy Binder, Daniel Davis, and Nicholas Bloom conducted in-depth interviews with 56 Harvard and Stanford students and recent alumni.

The researchers asked current and former students how they decided on their ultimate career paths. They found that the majority of students experienced anxiety and confusion when beginning college, but quickly understood which options were considered the most prestigious. Largely as a result of on-campus corporate recruitment, students saw finance, consulting, and high-tech jobs as high-status. These perceptions of prestige also led students to distinguish between “high-status” and “ordinary” jobs,  encouraging many to choose high-wealth, high-status occupational sectors.

Binder and her colleagues explain that while the key destinations for “the best and the brightest” have changed, the general processes funneling students toward a small number of occupational sectors are not new. Student career aspirations are driven not only by individual preferences, but by organizations and the people in them. Universities influence students’ occupational trajectories by fostering peer prestige systems based on the meanings students assign to particular jobs. By illuminating how this process works, the researchers help us understand how elite universities may “curtail students’ creativity, leech talent away from other sectors, and contribute to economic and social inequality.” 

You can find the full article here:

Amy J. Binder, Daniel B. Davis, & Nicholas Bloom. (2015). Career Funneling: How Elite Students Learn to Define and Desire ‘‘Prestigious’’Jobs. Sociology of Education, 0038040715610883.

Photo via Kayla Yoegal.
New research shows that digital providers typically charge more, deliver fewer hours of services, and differentiate less than face-to-face tutors.  Photo via Gaggle Speaks.

Digital tutoring in K-12 systems has rapidly emerged as a popular education option. Digital instruction includes the use of digital technology such as computers. Curricular formats range from highly structured and dependent on software to more fluid and dependent on the discretion of a live tutor.The increase in digital tutoring systems has created research demand to understand whether and how these practices are linked to student achievement outcomes.

Burch, Good, and Heinrich examined the digital providers’ role in out-of-school time (OST) tutoring. They completed a mixed-method longitudinal study of federally funded OST tutoring companies in five urban sites over four years and found that these companies had a reach as high as 88% of students eligible for OST tutoring in one district. The study sample included students eligible for OST tutoring under No Child Left Behind. They examined student attendance patterns and the relationship of different digital provider characteristics and access points to the reading and math achievement outcomes of students from low-income families.

They found that digital providers, on average, charged significantly more per hour than non-digital providers and delivered fewer hours of services to students than face-to-face tutoring providers. Further, they found that English language learners and students with disabilities were less likely to realize achievement gains through OST tutoring and that digital providers were often not prepared to differentiate instruction to better serve students with special needs.

They concluded that their findings are suggestive of potentially troubling patterns in access to different types of digital tutoring and that more research is necessary to understand whether treatment in digital tutoring is inequitable. 

You can find the full article here:

Patricia Burch, Annalee Good, & Carolyn HeinrichImproving Access to, Quality, and the Effectiveness of Digital Tutoring in K–12 Education. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2015.

Sarah Garcia is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies population health and inequality.

The idea of "first generation" college students wasn't commonplace until the 2000s.
The idea of “first generation” college students wasn’t around until the early  2000s. Image by Great Value Colleges.

1. What lead you to do this research?

Watching the proliferation of organizations for first-generation college students, it occurred to me that while I would be categorized as “first-generation” today, I was neither explicitly categorized as such when I was in college nor had I heard the label “first-generation” as a student. Intrigued, I found that many programs aimed explicitly at first-generation students, and intense academic interest in this group, did not emerge until the early 2000s. I became interested in this category as a social construction.

2. What should everybody know about what you found?

While there are potential benefits to categorizing students as first-generation (e.g., helping them to cope with academic and social expectations at college) there are also potential drawbacks. These drawbacks occur when schools attach cultural meanings to the first generation category, for example, by framing first-generation students as individuals who need to distance themselves from their families of origin and home communities in order to win the prize of upward mobility. As a consequence, first-generation students are positioned as having to choose between home and school. Faced with this decision, they are encouraged to think about themselves as upwardly mobile individuals who need to unburden themselves of the constraints of social class. This poses a threat to the development of a critical class consciousness. My research suggests that these are negative outcomes for students, but that they serve the interests of selective colleges, in particular.

I plan to explore the cultural meanings attached to the first generation category at other kinds of schools to see how meanings attached to this category may differ by type of postsecondary institution.
You can read the full article here:

Tina Wildhagen“Not Your Typical Student”: The Social Construction of the “First-Generation” College StudentQualitative Sociology, 2015.

Correctional education reduces recidivism and costs less. Photo by Amie Smith.

Free higher education for incarcerated adults continue to be hotly debated. While some argue that it’s unfair to provide GED and college courses to inmates for free, the recent overwhelming success of some state programs has brought renewed attention to the issue. According to a recent NPR feature, only 17 percent of California’s Prison University Project (PUP) participants were reincarcerated within three years, versus 65 percent of all released prisoners. The PUP even has a waiting list. But is California’s success representative of prison programs nationwide?

To answer this question, Lois Davis and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of studies examining the relationship between correctional education participation and inmate outcomes, 1980-2011. They focused on correctional education programs in the U.S. which provided an academic and/or vocational curriculum with a structured instructional component.

Davis and team found that the link between correctional education and lowered rate of reincarceration holds for programs across the U.S., with the overall odds of recidivism being 43 percent lower for individuals educated in prison. Examining  the cost-effectiveness of correctional education, they found that providing corrective education would cost about $1500 less per person than reincarceration. Their findings also suggest that correctional education may increase the rate of post-release employment. Since the U.S. incarceration rate has more than quadrupled in the past 40 years, it is important to invest in the future of inmates as a way to improve the health and wellness of individuals, communities, and ultimately the nation.

You can read the full article here:

Lois M. DavisEvaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults, Rand Corporation, 2013.

Amy August is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies education, parenting and childhood, sports, and competition.