Problem Solving

Oral History: a Viable Methodology for 21st Century Educational Administration Research: National Impact

William Allan Kritsonis, PhD asked:



Oral History: A Viable Methodology for 21st Century

Educational Administration Research: National Impact





This article identifies three 21st Century realities that are redefining research in educational administration:  1) the increasing need for relevancy and authenticity in addressing community and school problem solving contexts; 2) the need for a research method that permits the kind of in depth interviewing of knowledgeable individuals with minimal Institutional Review Board (IRB) oversight; and 3) a methodology that can be facilitated by emerging technologies. Oral history has been employed in many disciplines but has seldom been used in educational administration. It offers some promise and the authors suggest possible uses and interpretations of one proposed oral history project and one completed oral history project.


Purpose of the Article


            The purpose of this article is to examine oral history interviewing and historical research as a viable research method within the broad family of research methodologies in educational administration and educational leadership. The evolution of research methodology in educational administration has been influenced by changing paradigms, changing needs, increasing institutional Review Board (IRB) oversight, and changing technology. Educational administration research differs from other academic disciplines in that it involves the opportunity to find new and innovative uses for research findings for problem solving and decision making in school settings.



Research in Educational Administration Undergoing Transformation


            Educational administration research has undergone great transformation during the past century. Business management principles drawn from industry dominated the first half of the 20th Century of educational administration thought.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s various social science methods and concepts shaped a new generation of educational administration thought and research methodology (Campbell, Fleming, Newell & Bennion, 1987; Murphy, 2003, Fall). By the late 1980’s business and social science methodologies were supplemented though not replaced by qualitative methods drawn from anthropology.  Action research fills yet another educational administration research niche. It places less emphasis on formal theoretical constructs while focusing on authentic, campus-based data gathering, and problem-solving. This continuing growth in acceptance of research methodologies from other disciplines was described by Campbell, et al:


Educational administration is an applied field rather than an academic discipline. It does not draw upon a single body of literature nor use a single set of scholarly tools…an applied field must maintain a vital concern not only with the extension of knowledge but also with the improvement of practice…Similarly…an applied field must be concerned with problems in their totality – drawing on the methods of many disciplines. (1987, p. 3)


            Not all influences on educational administration research in the 21st Century have been methodological.  A national increase in Institutional Review Board (IRB) oversight has greatly influenced educational administration research (Herrington & Kritsonis, 2006).  There remains great variance among universities regarding the extent to which educational research is subject to IRB oversight. Some universities exempt educational studies from IRB oversight completely, especially those studies that were intended to examine quality improvement in educational institutions or action research used for classroom instruction. Some universities were requiring complete reviews of every aspect of research regardless of methodology or intended uses of the data. Navigating the maze of IRB restrictions at some institutions has led to avoidance of some research methodologies or populations and in some cases resulted in diminished research activity altogether (Herrington & Kritsonis, 2006).

            Technology has made most forms of research far more convenient and achievable. For example more user-friendly Windows or UNIX based statistical software programs such as Stat-Pac, (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS), and SAS have replaced hand-calculations, data punchcard readers, and mainframe versions of the statistical software. Qualitative researchers have access to coding software such as HyperRESEARCH 2.6, NVIVO 7, computer-assisted Qualitative Data Analysis (QAQDAS 07) to assist with high volume qualitative data coding capabilities. Audio and video recording equipment, imaging equipment, and related software continue to be developed for oral history recording, however, analog recordings continue to be preferred by most oral history professionals.

            The challenge for educational researchers in the 21st Century is to select a methodology that can provide a relevant context for examining education issues within specific contexts that are reliably and accurately preserved. The methodology must also yield a study that is achievable within a reasonable time frame, is affordable, and must satisfy ethical requirements or minimize the need for IRB scrutiny.


A  Methodology-in-Waiting


Charlton (1985) defined oral history as “the recording and preserving of planned interviews with selected persons able to narrate recollected memory and thereby aid the reconstruction of the past” (p.2). Baum (1978) defined oral history as:


1.      a tape recorded interview, or interviews, in  question-and-answer format,

2.      conducted by an interview who has some, and preferably the more the better, knowledge of the subject to be discussed,

3.      with a knowledgeable interview, someone who knows whereof he or she speaks from personal participation or observation (sometimes we allow a second-hand account),

4.       subjects’ of historical [or community] interest…

5.      accessible, eventually, in tapes and/or transcripts to a broad spectrum of researchers. (pp. 389-390)


            The value of oral history for educational researchers and practitioners is found in the background that can be provided by credible participants who are able to enrich understandings of the immediate problem-solving context or who can draw parallels with other contexts. Sometimes dramatic events or significant phenomena require giving voice to otherwise silent observers or constituencies that know the true nature of  the problem of interest, but who have never been consulted by historians or decision makers. For example, ethnographic shifts in recent years have created major cultural divides in communities and schools that challenge long held assumptions of teachers and administrators regarding their client student populations.

An example is found in formerly rural/now suburban high school campus that in 1995-2004 comparison revealed the fo
llowing demographic changes in students and teachers. In 1995 only 17 percent of the students of this inner city campus were Hispanic, 15 percent were African American, 65 percent of students were Anglo. The teacher demographic representations were similar. Ten years later 67 percent of the students were Hispanic, 17 percent were African American, but
only 16 of the students were Anglo. The teacher demographics remained relatively unchanged over the same 10 years.

            Conversations with parents, teachers, and administrators reveals that the unexpected demographic gaps that occurred during the preceding ten year period had resulted in an increase of racial tensions wherein teachers/student and teacher/parent conflicts occuring. The achievement of Hispanic students continued a downward spiral, attendance and dropouts were increasing, and disciplinary alternative educational placements were soaring.  These realities placed the district in jeopardy of losing its standing based on statewide criteria and NCLB standards.  This was a phenomenon that could be documented through oral history interviews and the results made available as a case for other districts. In this case a number of interventions might be possible in the short run but a comprehensive and effectively planned longer term plan informed by carefully conducted oral histories would provide some valuable context and community history of the community that can provide answers to working with all parties affected by the problem.

            Another example is the fact that during the 1960’s and 1970’s the educational and experiential cornerstones for the first generation of Mexican-American college and university presidents and chancellors in the state of Texas and the nation were being established within an educational and cultural environment of South Texas that was hostile to the aspirations and future advancement of Latinos (Herrington, 1993, August). What can be learned about the education and mentoring experiences of these highly successful individuals would be invaluable to educators and other minority individuals making career and education decisions.

These two very real scenarios though unrelated have some connectedness. There are lessons that the teachers and administrators at the high school undergoing dramatic demographic shifts (study proposed but not yet conducted) could learn from the South Texas study of successful Hispanic students who grew up in communities that 30 and 40 years earlier resembled their current demographic and cultural realities. Communities that are just beginning to face the realities of permanently altered demographic landscapes can learn a great deal from their South Texas predecessors, precisely because those experiences have been previously recorded and transcribed for future reference (Herrington, 1993, August). The thoughts and feelings of these successful Hispanic individuals regarding their experiences, parents, teachers, and mentors (many of whom were Anglo as well as Hispanic) are eloquently recorded and transcribed for posterity. Their stories reveal personal strategies and significant persons who once extended a helping hand.

            In both of these cases, oral history methodology presents perhaps the only way to preserve otherwise unobtainable information. Concerning oral history Hoffman (1974) wrote:


Its most important advantage…is that it makes possible the preservation of life experience of persons who do not have the …leisure to write their memoirs…Interviews with people who have been foot soldiers in various important movements of social change but have heretofore been unrecorded may now be preserved and hence their impact assessed. (p. 26)



The Role of History in Educational Reform


            Scholars have identified several uses for history in educational research. History can be instrumental in effecting social reform, predicting future trends, or in influencing practice through the training of educators (Borg & Gall, 1983). Comparing the work of historian to that of psychotherapist Borg, et al noted that history has a particularly liberating function for educators:


To Freud, neurosis is the failure to escape the past, the burden on one’s history. What is repressed  returns distorted and is eternally reenacted. The psychotherapist’s task is to help the patient reconstruct the past. In this respect the historian’s goal resembles that of the therapist – to liberate us from the burden of the past by helping us to understand it. (p. 802)


            It is our common understanding of history and the ability to learn from our shared past that distinguishes humans from all other creatures. Wector (1957, August) wrote:


Chimpanzee with a stack of empty boxes and a banana hanging out of reach soon learns by his own experience. But man alone learns from the experience of others. History makes this possible. In the broadest sense, all that we know is history. More strictly, it is the road map of the past. (p. 24)


History is our collective memory. The ability to utilize history and extract useful generalizations and theories is uniquely human. Without a record of the past we are left to navigate life’s course without the aid of those who have gone before us.

 In a cogent essay published posthumously, Kennedy (1964, February) provided several reasons for examining the historical record. He noted:


There is little that is more important…without [history]…[one] stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going. With such knowledge, he is no longer alone but draws a strength far greater than his own from the cumulative experience of the past and the cumulative vision of the future. (p.3)



Ethical Oversight of Oral History

And Technological Considerations


Historical research and particularly oral history interviewing provides context and clear precedents that can be explored and considered for educational policy as well as practice. Educational researchers and IRB board members might wince at the notion of preserving recorded interviews. Such practice seems to contradict ethical provisions safeguarding anonymity of research subjects.  This is where the difference between oral history interviewing and other methodologies is important. Unlike any other discipline or methodology, oral history interviewing requires the spoken words of a specifically named individual connected in time and place by means of recording data on audio tapes, video tapes, images, documents, and transcripts preserved so as to be accessible for historical verification (Dunaway, D.K. & Baum, 1984).

To address this ethics concern, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the Oral History Society (OHS) in October 2003 successfully petitioned the U.S. Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, for a special ruling on oral history research interviewing. They were especially concerned with oral history projects that do not involve the type of research defined by HHS regulations. It was determined that some oral history projects may not fall under the “Common Rule” (45 CFR, part 46) that define research as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”  According to the Organization of Oral Historians (2003, November):


This type of research involves standard questionnaires with large samples of individuals who remain anonymous, not the open-ended interviews with identifiable individuals who give their interviews with ‘informed consent’ that characterizes oral history. Only those o
ral history projects that conform to the regulatory definition of research will now need to submit their research protocols for IRB review. (p. 17)


An advantage of the oral history interview, therefore, if the study is carefully designed, is that IRB oversight has become far less restrict
ive than for other methodologies.



Concluding Remarks


In conclusion, oral history methodology is technology-intensive. Emerging 21st Century technologies as well as existing technologies continue to simplify and broaden the capabilities of the oral historian, both for gathering information and presenting information in a variety of formats. Digitizing voice, image, video, and text materials have greatly reduced the processing and production time for producing and presenting oral history findings.

Finally, oral history interviewing, more than ever before, has enormous potential for giving voice to silent but important players within the arenas of social change – including community and school. In order make any further changes in our school systems educational leaders and researchers have got to find ways to hear these previously unheard voices. Well designed studies that seek out these voices of individuals who have given informed consent can provide historically and contextually rich information specific to time and place with minimal IRB oversight. Finally, technology is rapidly expanding the repertoire of formats for archiving and presenting very useful and usable knowledge to drive school improvement.




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