Elizabeth Cohenís Contribution to Sociology of Education

Remarks by Marlaine Lockheed

September 25, 1999


It is indeed an honor to participate in this panel addressing the topic of Elizabeth Cohenís contribution to the sociology of education. I am completely unqualified for this role. Admittedly, I was formally trained as a sociologist of education and my doctoral dissertation used a technique that was unusual among sociologists 30 years ago but quite common today -- that is, I videotaped and subsequently coded student interaction in real, heterogeneous classrooms. And my early research built upon expectation states theory to examine male-female interaction in task groups. But for the past two decades I have been working and publishing with development economists and have become through socialization in situ more of an economist of education. From that perspective I would request Liz to please document the costs of training teachers for complex instruction and the economic benefits of thereby increasing the achievement of all students. This information would be invaluable for policy. Which leads to the third reason for being unqualified to sit on this panel. On a day-to-day basis, I am a bureaucrat/education policy advisor, since I head a group of education specialists at the World Bank who are working for education reform in the countries of the middle-east and north Africa. I will, therefore will keep my comments brief.

My relationship to Liz goes back nearly 35 years. I first met Liz -- Dr. Cohen to her students--in the fall of 1966, when I was enrolled in a graduate program completely lacking in theory but which required I take a course in the sociology of education. During my first semester I became increasingly interested in the sociology of education and decreasingly interested in my former field of study. But I was a bit uncertain about what to do. Liz -- then an assistant professor -- took pity on me and developed a new masterís program in the sociology of education with me as its first student, so I could have a year to figure out what I wanted to do with my professional life. I did figure it out, and migrated to the then sidec program. But I continued to work for Liz as a research assistant throughout graduate school and later as a post-doctoral research associate. A decade later, when I was a vice-president of aera, I invited Liz to prepare a review paper on the sociology of education, focusing on the growth of the discipline from 1965 to 1985; the paper was organized around the central theoretical concepts of authority, task, evaluation structure and status order, and makes good reading even now. In 1985 I also spent a term as a visiting professor at Stanford, and Liz and I worked on a paper to further elaborate the concepts of gender as a status characteristic; unfortunately for the paper, our professional lives went in different directions at that time and it was never completed, but I can assure you it was a theory paper. Finally, a few years ago, as a member of the editorial committee for the Teachers College Press Series in the Sociology of Education (editor: Gary Natriello), I was pleased to recommend that we publish Liz and Rachel Lotanís book on Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms.

I have three points to make about Lizís contribution to the sociology of education. My first point is that Liz has throughout her career used formal sociological theory as the instrument for conceptualizing/understanding observable social phenomena -- most notably her application of expectation states theory to the understanding structure and processes inside the classroom. The fundamental theoretical concepts of this theory are familiar to this audience: collective task, evaluation structure, performance expectations and most important, diffuse and specific status characteristics. As I reread her 1982 Annual Review of Sociology article on expectation states and interracial interaction in school settings, her 1986 review of the sociology of the classroom I just mentioned, and her 1995 AERJ article on producing equal status interaction in the heterogeneous classroom, I was again struck by her fidelity to this theoretical framework and to how her more applied work in classrooms shaped and was shaped by developments in this theory made in the laboratory, particularly in the 1970s and 80s. I believe she has made a tremendous contribution to the field by conceptualizing academic status characteristics, such as those based on perceived differences in ability in reading or math, as prime examples of specific status characteristics, and therefore amenable to treatment. But she has also adapted elements of organizational theory -- specifically the concepts of delegated authority, lateral communication, task uncertainty, evaluation and feedback -- and those of social psychology -- modeling and social learning. These concepts she has elegantly woven together in numerous book chapters and journal articles.

My second point is that Liz has also used theory and theoretical concepts as a scaffolding for building cumulative knowledge. In her chapter on the sociology of education published in my book The Contribution of the Social Sciences to Education Policy and Practice, 1965-1985 she organizes a vast literature review around the theoretical concepts of task structure (or technology), evaluation processes, and status. She also explores how these concepts relate to learning outcomes. Within each of these classifications, she elaborates the literature along theoretical dimensions. Under task structure, she deals with the literature from organizational theory and concepts of authority, delegated authority, and multi-task activities. She also summarizes the literature relating task structure to friendship structures. Under evaluation processes, she discusses evaluation and effort, effects of teachersí evaluative behavior, and how the construct "intellectual ability" arises from task and evaluation structures. And of course, she looks at diffuse and specific status characteristics and how their effects can be treated in ongoing classrooms, which she characterizes as a multicharacteristic situation. She then takes the bold step of asserting that these sociological phenomena directly affect learning in the classroom. Task structure, she asserts affects interaction which can affect learning outcomes; evaluations systems affect effort and engagement, both strongly related to learning; and task and evaluation jointly affect status systems in the classroom which affect classroom participation and learning. To my knowledge, she was the first sociologist of education to look at learning gains resulting from differences in classroom organizational structure.

The importance of cumulative knowledge is paramount, and contrasts sharply to the ongoing policy debates still raging in the literature. Liz has set us all an example by her adherence to learning both from theory and from mistakes, creating the building blocks of knowledge. Here I would like to quote from Lizís 1986 review article:

"I do not mean to imply the research is complete. On the contrary, my experience with trying to apply status treatments to ongoing classrooms has given me too much humility for that. We have much to learn about how contextual effects modify status systems and behavior. We are only beginning to sense the basis for peer status in different settings and to understand how peer status interacts with academic status. We are still struggling with the application of interventions to change status and interaction...in ongoing classrooms."

This continued struggle is the message of my third point: Liz has been steadfast in her application of theory in the interest of improving classroom practice. I remember as a first year graduate student that Liz argued fervently that there was nothing as practical as a good theory, and that good theory could be used to unpack the "black box" of classroom practice. (Well, 35 years ago Iím not sure we were referring to the black box, but that was the sense of the lecture). I worked closely with Liz on her first foray into "real" classrooms (the real here is in quotes, because although the walls were real enough, the rest of the school was created from scratch for experimental purposes). This was an interracial summer school -- astonishingly called the Center for Interracial Cooperation -- which operated in Oakland the summer of 1971; I was the recently minted post-doctoral research director and general dogís body. We were able to produce and maintain equal status relations between black and white students over a six-week period. However, we employed no conventional academic tasks so the direct relevance to really real classroom was somewhat limited. The work that Liz has been doing jointly with Rachel Lotan for the past two decades, equally based on theory, is much more "real", and has strongly affected classroom practice, but this will be discussed in the next panel.. But it is Lizís conviction that theories of sociology have meaning for education to which I refer. In her own words:

"Sociological theory has a powerful potential for improving the practice of education, but this potential is a well-kept secret within the discipline. Unlike psychologists, sociologists have been reluctant to carry out applied research.

Liz has not been reluctant, and her book, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, is now a classic in the application of theory to practice

It is not possible to conclude these remarks without reference to Liz as a teacher and mentor. Throughout her career she has balanced her deep commitments to her family, her faith, her profession and her students -- and did so long before this was conventional. I would like to refer back to the late 1960s, when a motley crew of Lizís graduate students (disproportionately female and black) hung out and provided support to each other in Lizís research laboratories -- Alverado House and Salvatierra House, long since removed to make way for the parking lot outside CERAS. We called ourselves Dr. Cohenís "chickens" because Liz was a "mother hen" to us all --finding us scholarships, going to bat for us against outdated rules of the university, and providing a steady stream of high status performance evaluations that enabled us to carry on. Which we did, and it is a testimony to Liz that so many of us are able to be here today to celebrate her career and her contribution to the sociology of education.