I think he’s completely correct, and want to highlight some fine examples of my junior colleagues who also prove his point (for the record, my senior colleagues confirm his impression too). I am– by far– not the only academic focused on issues of inequality and striving to use rigorous methods to examine them.
For starters, one only needs to look across the hall from my office, next door to my esteemed colleague Mike Olneck, where you can find Doug Harris, Nancy Kendall, Adam Nelson, and Tricia Burch. All in the throes of early careers, all making outstanding contributions to the study of educational policy by choosing their topics and approaches with an eye towards clear identification of both problems and solutions.
Adam is an historian whose painstaking attention to detail and beautiful writing increases our awareness of the broader and longstanding social issues which shape current policy debates. For an example, see his well-reviewed book, The Elusive Ideal: Equal Educational Opportunity and the Federal Role in Boston’s Public Schools, 1950–1985. Adam brings just as much of his energy to his teaching, conveying an affinity and talent for undergraduate education that most parents just dream their kids will get exposure to,
Doug Harris, far more well-known than I, burst on the academic scene fresh from the Economic Policy Institute, and quickly established himself as a thoughtful leader of the movement to measure teacher quality in an objective, comprehensive, yet accessible way. He is a jack of all trades, as many of the best economists are, even daring to collaborate with me (poor boy!) on a ridiculously large study of financial aid. His approach could never be considered partisan, and as a result he has fans on both the right and the left. I certainly count myself among them.
Tricia Burch somehow (how? How???) manages to be an outstanding teacher and mentor (according to every student I’ve met) while also generating careful conceptual and empirical work on educational policy and practice. And, to top it all off, she is a departmental leader of the movement to value one’s family, as well as one’s academic life. She has a forthcoming book, as well as two gorgeous children and a very happy marriage. Most impressive.
Finally, there is Nancy Kendall, our most recent hire. Better than almost anyone, Nancy simultaneously represents the old guard and the new, with her deep commitment to questioning normative conceptions of equity and her extremely sensitive and thorough ethnographic approach to understanding the lives of children in the most vulnerable situations. Nancy and her beautiful baby and husband will spend the next year in Mozambique, as part of a Fulbright fellowship.
Colleagues like these promise that the academy going forward will never leave behind the past, but will at the same time find new ways to work and teach that should hopefully demonstrate to more Americans that higher education need not be considered the domain of the elite.