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Choosing Real-World Impact Over Impact Factor

My annual report for the 2012-13 academic year stares at me from an undisturbed corner of my desk. I’m tempted not to fill it out.

It’s not that I’ve spent the past year in blissful inactivity. It’s just that what I’ve produced has no place on this form. To list my activities, they must be camouflaged and then smuggled into the shady category of “additional publications.” Even there, they would be considered dubious.

For the past 12 months I’ve moved from writing articles for refereed journals to creating digital products for high-school history teachers. These include lesson plans, sets of original documents, instructional videos, and short assessments of historical thinking. With my team of graduate students, we’ve eliminated the middleman. Rather than seeking a publisher, we upload our materials directly to the Internet and leave them by the proverbial digital curb. For free. To date, we are closing in on a million downloads.

None of this was by design. Until 2008, when Abby Reisman tested our “Reading Like a Historian” curriculum in five San Francisco high schools, I was content to publish in venues that confer gold stars on my annual report. Reisman showed that students who used our curriculum not only outperformed peers on tests of historical knowledge but also grew in reading comprehension. When district officials asked us to make our materials available to every San Francisco teacher, we created a simple Web site and uploaded 75 PDF’s.

It soon became clear that teachers were forwarding links to friends elsewhere. After six months, we had 50,000 downloads; 200,000 by the end of the first year. Before I could learn to say “Drupal,” I was over my head in the difference between HTML and XTML, user studies on how people read on the Web (they don’t, they skim), how to storyboard, shoot, and edit Web videos (first I had to learn what a storyboard was), and how to navigate Google Analytics to track users by state, city, county, and zip code. As our user base expanded, answering e-mails become unwieldy. Before long we had a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and a Twitter account.

My graduate training in the digital Stone Age prepared me for none of this—nor had a career in two schools of education. Education schools, like their sister schools of nursing and social work, suffer from a congenital status defect. If professional schools are the illegitimate children of the research university, schools of education are the runts of that litter. Education professors often ape the conventions of their higher-status cousins in the arts and sciences, adopting, as the sociologist Steven Brint put it, “similar abstract vocabularies, similarly illuminating theoretical perspectives, and similarly rigorous conceptual schemes.” Or in English: To make it in the academy, make sure no one outside understands a word you’re saying.

Don’t get me wrong. I have not given up on verified knowledge, scientific replication, peer review, and rigorous statistical tests. I still publish in specialized journals and help my graduate students do so. I serve on two editorial boards, attend academic conferences, and dutifully fill out the ballot for the officers of my professional association. What’s changed is that I’ve stopped lying to myself.

I no longer believe that the scholarly enterprise of education has much to do with educational betterment. I no longer believe that when I publish articles in journals with minuscule circulations I am contributing to the field—if by “field” we mean the thousands of well-meaning individuals who go to work each day in places called schools.

Academics sometimes tell themselves that there’s a cadre of translators out there who scour scholarly journals and render findings into normal language—a speculation right up there with aliens at Roswell and Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth. The truth is that what goes on in the pages of the American Educational Research Journal stays in the pages of the American Education Research Journal.

This whole business is kept in check by an interlocking directorate of journals, grant-making agencies, promotion and tenure criteria, and yes, annual reviews. I recently asked a colleague, a researcher with an international reputation, to name a publication that teachers might typically encounter. He thought momentarily and responded with Educational Researcher (circulation approximately 25,000). When I told him about American Educator, the monthly received by the more than 900,000 members of the American Federation of Teachers, he scratched his head. What does it say when our leading lights are clueless about how to reach the rank and file?

The ground is quaking beneath schools of education. Unattached to universities, new programs for training teachers, sometimes run by charter-management organizations, other times acting as freestanding entities, proliferate like spring dandelions. Best sellers like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion blithely turn their backs on p values, hierarchical linear designs, and matrix sampling for the down-home immediacy of personal experience. When administrators at research universities put programs on the chopping block (RIP University of Chicago’s department of education, founded by John Dewey), there is little outcry from arts-and-sciences colleagues.

I am not suggesting that every academic follow my accidental journey and take to the Web with digital wares. What I am suggesting is that it’s time for those of us in the academy to stop confusing the field of education with a set of limited-circulation journals. We can no longer afford to tell ourselves that our work is done once we’ve corrected our galleys and submitted our final reports. We have important things to say but have forgotten how—and to whom—to say them.

So go finish that revise-and-resubmit. But let’s not fool ourselves. Confusing impact factor with real-world impact may enhance our annual reviews, but—in the long term—may lead to our own extinction.

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and of history, by courtesy, at Stanford University. He also directs the Stanford History Education Group. He tweets @samwineburg.

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