Pray to our Gods: The Marginalization of Practice in Departments of Leadership and Policy

By Joseph Murphy
Vanderbilt University

Murphy.jpgThe purpose of this brief is to advance the argument that departments of school leadership and policy maintain perspectives that are dysfunctional to the practice arm of the profession. The separation of the academy from practice, and vice versa, is not a new theme in school administration (Bridges, 1977). The objective here is to provide a deeper understanding of this divide by examining norms and proclivities on the university side of a quite frayed relationship. In short, the narrative is not one of separation but marginalization.

The rationale for the essay is fairly straightforward. It seems that we have been engaged in some inadequate doctoring over the last 40 years, prescribing an array of solutions with little understanding of the dynamics of the problem. Not surprisingly, the traditional ways we have attempted to address this gap (e.g., "the bridge between theory and practice") have not provided much utility. Finally, I believe that actors in the chronicle from the university bear a special obligation to address this problem. All of these issues are explored below.

Let me begin by suggesting positive motivations for this brief. The aim is not to provide another screed on the significant disconnects among the four sets of sometimes interchangeable actors in the schooling play—academics, policy makers, developers, and practitioners. Let me also be clear that I am well aware that rents in the professional fabric have been made by others besides professors. That is an essay for another day. It should also be acknowledged that leadership and policy departments do some wonderful things for practitioners. That too is a topic for another day. Neither of these latter points gainsays the fact that a good deal of culpability for the generally subtle but nonetheless robust marginalization of practice rests with us.

My third point can be addressed quickly so let us begin there. Why do we have a special obligation to get after this problem? The most important answer, as I show below, is that we caused most of it and therefore bear a heightened sense of responsibility in the matter. I also arrive at this conclusion because we occupy a privileged position in the story. For all of the gratuitous condemnations of universities, we remain the big dog in the ring. I have yet to see a colleague from the other three sectors of the profession, even our toughest critics, feel anything but delight when they are provided university status in some form (e.g., adjunct professor). They, to a person, consider it an honor. They carry it on their resumes with some pride. On the other hand, I have been in the business a long time and I have never heard of a professor listed as an adjunct or honorary member of a superintendent's cabinet or any such related activity. Why do you imagine that is? Now on to the essential critiques.

Questions about the Emperor's Robes
Let us start with some historical analysis (see especially Campbell, Fleming, Newell, & Bennion, 1987; Culbertson, 1995; Griffiths, 1959). Departments of policy and leadership were practice-anchored places before the onslaught of the theory movement in the 1950s and 1960s. As with all attempts to overthrow one regime (practice) with another (theory), two lines of attack were laid out. The first, positively grounded, preached the benefits that would accrue to the profession if "science," in this case theory, assumed the leading role in the schooling play. The second, negatively anchored, laid down a withering line of fire against the idea of keeping practice (e.g., professional judgment, naked empiricism, and war stories) as the star of the production, along with the fundamental, but rarely directly stated, position that "A" would need to die for "B" to flourish. The result of all this, at least in departments of leadership and policy, is that the field turned increasingly to the social sciences, first sociology, then political science, more recently to anthropology, and now to economics to strengthen the profession writ large. In the process, Dewey's essential theme that educational practice provides the subject matter to shape inquiry and action was forgotten (nice interpretation) or dismissed (a harsher view).

Later, of course, empiricists would turn a skeptical eye toward (nice interpretation) or actively reject (a harsher view) the new theory gods. Again a double line of attack was set in motion, the benefits of pushing new and better science (i.e., evidence) on to the school policy and leadership stage and an elucidation of the limitations of "mere theory" to direct action. If social science theorists had failed to save the profession (which, of course, they had), more authentic scientists would be up to the task.
So what was the outcome of these struggles and transformations? Some very useful things for sure. One casualty, however, was a place for practice in the university home. Let us look at this assertion through some of the logic we have built up over the years. Perhaps our favorite is "the bridge between theory and practice." An objective analysis of the idea conveys some essential insights, I believe. First, the traffic on this bridge was and is always supposed to flow from left to right. In 35 years of work in the profession, I have never once heard anyone talk about the bridge between practice and theory. Second, the concept explicitly acknowledges (and honors) the separation of practice from the academy. By definition, it suggests that someone is to construct a bridge to facilitate exchange. The reality is, of course, that the bridge has never been built. Worse, if by some good fortune it were constructed, assessment of the influence of theory on the work of practitioners leads me to conclude that there would be almost no traffic on the structure (Griffiths, 1988; Hills, 1975), except for the occasional student in our graduate programs. It is an amazingly dysfunctional metaphor by which to steer a profession, and one that marginalizes practice and practitioners.

Moving along, let us surface another of our core ideas, "the scholar practitioner." A little deconstruction work here is useful as well. The cardinal message is quite clear: practitioners need to look and act like us, with the sequela that they will be better off for the transformation. I realize that a sample of one has its problems, but for what it is worth I have a long history in the university and I have never head a professor assume the mantle of "practitioner scholar," nor even seen such an idea in print. Words carry meaning and this phrase speaks directly to the ancillary role of practice in universities.
We could pursue more examples. The common refrain that we are preparing "critical consumers of research" comes to mind. And, of course, "research" as we know it occupies the high ground here as well. Let us stop for a moment and peer at the currently popular concept, "evidence-based [fill in the blank]." What lays behind this powerful and appealing idea? Quite simply this: some evidence is valued; other evidence is not (nice interpretation) or is denigrated (a harsher view). It does not take too much effort to determine whose evidence holds the place of honor and whose does not.
The point of all this is that we have built and continue to add additions to the professional house with considerably more emphasis on us and considerably less emphasis on practice than should be the case. We have also woven a tapestry from quite distorted logic to cloak ourselves from the judgment that we have done so (nice interpretation) or that we are right anyway (harsher view). The point is not that the old science and/or the new science should be discarded. However, if they are not nested in the culture of practice and the work of practitioners, rather than our culture, they will have scant likelihood of accomplishing what we assert we want.

Take the "preparing critical consumers of research" nostrum we examined above. Go into the first 50 schools you find (where the principal is not currently a graduate school student) and ask the principals to name the last research article (as defined by us) that they read. My guess is that when we sum our answers we would be embarrassed into jettisoning this and related concepts and what they stand for.

Look at the "evidence-based practice" construct. It is not that the evidence that we generate is unimportant. But it certainly is not the chief god to those in practice. Many decisions in schools will never be made on the basis of scientific evidence. And even when it is available, it may not hold the top spot in the full consortium of evidence. Trying to beat people into accepting our gods is not a good strategy. The issue is not to continue to marginalize "evidence" as seen by others. We need to start with an examination of our own impoverished understanding of evidence before we proselytize others. We then need to help practitioners fit "scientific evidence" into their much broader array of what counts as evidence, a task we on the top of the pyramid have forgotten or chosen to ignore.

At the risk of being booted from the academy, let me suggest practitioners have plenty of evidence and much of it is incredibly powerful. "Intuitive knowledge" and "speculative analysis" oftentimes will rival more "scientific evidence." So too will values. So too at times will "stories," and yes, even "anecdotes," a fact well known to colleagues shaping policy in special education. There is a spectrum of legitimate types of evidence, some of which feel more authentic to colleagues in practice. Pretending that we have a monopoly on evidence is not only incorrect but it marginalizes practice. It almost guarantees that our efforts will produce inert material. Using ideas from colleagues in teaching and learning (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999), we need much greater focus on evidence in practice and evidence of practice, with some dialing back on evidence for practice. We also need to be able to situate "scientific evidence" in the ways data exist in schools.

The Sun Revolves around the Earth
We have also marginalized practice and continue to do so by routinely privileging university culture over the culture of practice. In the face of a good deal of evidence to the contrary, we hold steadfast to the notion that the earth is the center of the universe. Begin with an examination of the "center of gravity" in our programs. The core scaffolding has been, is now, and looks as if it will remain perpetually the academic disciplines. Why is this? Because practitioner colleagues are calling out for such a framework? Because of the long and successful track record of its positive impact on the quality of leadership in schools? I do not believe answers are to found here. We feature disciplines because they are what we know and who we are, or who we would like to think we are, not because they have any established linkages with the needs and interests of practitioner colleagues.

We have already reported on the requirement for everyone to worship our data gods, not those from practice. And since we control what gods are supposed to look like, we are untroubled by this fact. It feels and looks right seen from the university hilltop. One need look no further than the "typical" doctoral program for future school leaders to assess this claim. First, we offer a series of "methods" courses carved from psychology and anthropology. Much of this bears limited (nice interpretation) to little (harsher view) relationship to the "methods" required to run a school. But since the sun revolves around the earth, we tend not to trouble ourselves about this. We then culminate this oddity with a major assignment that is generally tangentially linked to the world of practice, and is rarely worth the time and effort required for the undertaking. But of course this assignment fits quite comfortably with the work that we do. And we do this because we are ascendant. We are more concerned with integrity (nice interpretation) or appearances (harsher view) of our world than with requirements of the world of practice. In the process, we have becomes dispensers of less-than-useful knowledge and defenders of a system that brutalizes practitioners who cannot master unneeded tools in the service of a largely useless assignment. And our "conversations" around theses "failures" are sometimes less than charitable, and always comfortably assign blame to the victims. For over 30 years, I have routinely asked why we do this. I have never received an answer that was not either a full flown falsehood (e.g., so they can read research articles critically) or platitudes unworthy of professors (e.g., it helps them lead more effectively).

It gets worse, however. All of the above is not neutral. Disrespect sometimes creeps into the narrative. Let us return to evidence-based action and data. I have had many colleagues pulling their hair out over the years because their students are in a "quest for confirming evidence," as opposed to the search for and appropriate use of "scientific evidence.
If the culture of practice was understood, my exasperated colleagues would realize that data in schools is quite often the search for confirming evidence, evidence to support chosen paths of change. This does not make it good. But simply "enlightening" or "browbeating" practitioners into using evidence more appropriately will not work for the profession writ large. We need to help colleagues nest our evidence into their evidence in ways that ensure action. When we dismiss their evidence as unworthy, this becomes impossible. For example, it is not especially difficult to let stories and anecdotes carry evidence-based data to great effect.

The same point holds for a variety of our favorite scientific ideas. Take "generalizability." The basis for establishing meaning here is different in schools than in universities, not better or worse but different. If we desire to have colleagues in practice incorporate the power of scientific generalizability, we would do well not to pretend (often with some smugness) that field-based understandings of generalizability are tragically flawed and that the people there should convert to our religion. We would be better off trying to understand how they think about generalizability (and other tools) and then find methods to bring the ideas into alignment for school improvement.

Other examples of mostly defenseless activity in universities also flow from privileging academic culture. Here are a few that wear laurels in our world but seem quite wrongheaded in the culture of practice—the focus on: a curriculum of questions over answers (practitioners need answers), dialogue and discussion over action (the dynamic of practice is action), the heavy emphasis on writing over interpersonal skills (80 percent of a principal's time is spent in interpersonal exchanges; if he or she wrote anything longer than two pages in a year it would be noteworthy), and thinking over "mere technical work" (much of the job is technical in nature). No I am not arguing that dialogue and thinking are poor skills for practitioner peers to have. What I do contend, however, is that the marginalization of practice culture, the mistaken belief that the sun revolves around the earth, has pushed us to the far left side on all of these (and related issues).

Cause for Humility
Don Schula, the iconic coach of the Miami Dolphins, tells a wonderful story of a time he and his wife went to watch a movie in a very small New England town. As they entered, the small group gathered broke into applause. Of course, Schula assumed it was on his behalf. Turns out that the theatre would only show the movie if 9 people were in the audience. He and his wife had just ensured that those gathered would indeed be able to see their film, and they were pretty happy about the fact. I think we could learn from the story. When I review the chronicle of the most important work in the profession over the last 40 years, I believe it merits appreciation. On the other hand, we would be wise not to spend too much time patting ourselves on the back or preening for colleagues in policy, practice, and development. What have we really told colleagues in these domains of the profession? Something along these lines I think:

  • good employees matter; hire them rather than weak ones
  • coming to work is valuable
  • if you get to know someone and care about them, you are more likely to be able to help them
  • it helps at the start to know where you want to go, and to take stock of the trip from time to time
  • if you invest more time and labor, i.e., you work harder, you get more than if you do not
  • good leaders are better than mediocre or poor leaders
  • things that are implemented well work better than those that are not
  • you are wise to take context into consideration when making decisions and taking action

Using "state-of-the-art" tools, we rediscover these conclusions every decade or so. We then dress them up in new garments and assume credit for new insights that look a good deal like the old insights. More importantly, they match pretty closely what practitioner colleagues have deduced to be the case using much less sophisticated tools than the ones we prize. Not that our work is not important, but we really could be a bit more humble about our contributions than I often detect to be the case.

For all of our sophistication, we also marginalize practice when we follow pathways that run counter to our own preachings. We do a lot of selling based on less-than-convincing (nice interpretation) or illusionary (harsher view) evidence. I maintain a portfolio of these truths in the "middle brain research institute," ideas such as learning styles and "adult" development. Equally important, at many universities, on a multitude of commissions, and with assorted associations I have been in thousands of meetings. A generous assessment is that I could count on two hands and one foot all the decisions made on the basis of evidence-based research. Or even cases where evidence-based research played an important if not starring role. It is often the "story" or the "anecdote" (e.g., "my wife is a fourth-grade teacher and she tells me that. . . .") that moves people to decide issues on the table. We trample on our own banner. Poor modeling indeed.

There is more to be said, of course. But the goal here is not to create an encyclopedia of problems. It is, rather, to show that the real issue here is not the separation of the academy and practice but the marginalization of the latter by the former. I understand that there is no mean spiritedness involved. But that does not alter the outcome. We cannot be successful as a profession building with the blueprints we have created. The mythical bridge between theory and practice will likely never be built. Conversion will not carry us far either. We need to get the earth into better alignment with the sun.


Bridges, E. M. (1977). The nature of leadership. In L. L. Cunningham, W. G. Hack, & R. O Nystrand (Eds.), Educational administration: The developing decades (pp. 202-230). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

Campbell, R. F., Fleming, T., Newell, L. J., & Bennion, J. W. (1987). A history of thought and practice in educational administration. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1999). Relationship of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. In A. Iran-Nejad & C. D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education. Vol. 24 (pp. 249-306). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Culbertson, T. (1995). Building bridges: UCEA's first two decades. University Park, PA: University Council for Educational Administration.

Griffiths, D. E. (1959). Administrative theory. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Griffiths, D. E. (1988). Educational administration: Reform PDQ or die. (Occasional paper, no. 8312). Tempe, AZ: University Council for Educational Administration

Hills, J. (1975). The preparation of administrators: Some observations from the "firing line." Educational Administration Quarterly 11(3), 1-20.

Joseph Murphy
Frank W. Mayborn Chair
Peabody College of Education
Vanderbilt University, Box 414
230 Appleton Place
Nashville, TN 37203-5721