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Two Revolutions in Educational Attainment Research: Their Impact on Public Understanding and Social Policy (WP-02-21)

James E. Rosenbaum

In the past 30 years, two revolutions have fundamentally transformed the way scholars view the educational attainment process, and, amazingly, the work of scholars has transformed public understanding and social policy. The first revolution had three components — multivariate analysis, computerization, and large national datasets. These were embodied in the status-attainment model that seeks to identify which antecedent factors best explain outcomes and what intervening factors may mediate these effects. The second revolution was the development of new institutional and context theories to understand underlying social processes — organizational structures, social capital, social networks, and social context influences. Both revolutions had a large impact on our understanding.

This paper outlines some accomplishments of each model. It focuses on two topics to examine how our understanding of tracking was transformed by each revolution, and how our understanding of educational influences broadened to include neighborhood effects. I emphasize the impact of research on public understanding and social policies, both because they are important, and because thinking about concrete actions and processes forces us to consider the real meaning of our findings. Underlying this review is a recurrent theme: that research can help us to understand the complexities of a rapidly changing educational environment, to see aspects of social reality that are largely invisible, and to see people’s capabilities and the ways the social world can extend those capabilities. Social structures are especially pernicious because they are so hard to see and their impact is surreptitious — suppressing capabilities so they cannot even be detected. Good social research enables us to see these influences and to discover better alternatives. Structures not only constrain, they also enable, and sometimes they help bring out individuals’ capabilities. These results suggest that we can design social structures that will enable individuals to realize their capabilities more fully and to perform beyond the stereotypes that poor social structures have imposed on them.
James E. Rosenbaum, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University

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