Michigan State University Professor Kenneth Frank has been elected to the National Academy of Education, an honor reserved for the nation’s most outstanding scholars in education.
Frank is known internationally for his research on social networks, particularly among educators, and how they relate to critical issues such as teacher induction and retention, mathematics instruction and school governance.
He is a pioneer in developing techniques for statistical analysis that are used broadly by fellow researchers and lead to new understandings about what’s happening in schools.
“Professor Ken Frank is one of our nation’s best methodologists who not only works on developing new methods for understanding networks and what it means to have a significant effect,” said Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah University Distinguished Professor at MSU. “But he is also a thoughtful and willing mentor to faculty and students alike regarding how to improve the quality of their educational research, whether at a basic level or in influencing policy as well.”
Insights from researchers often lead to a variety of new curricula and pedagogy. Frank’s goal is to help them understand how these changes enter into schools, not only through large scale data analysis but through educators—the people.
“I have always wanted to be much closer to the students’ and teachers’ experiences,” Frank said. “I have learned how a teacher’s practices are influenced by the practices of others in their network and through their engagement outside school, such as through social media. An innovation might actually work against the existing networks and therefore have little chance of sustained implementation. Or the diffusion process might polarize the educators, leaving the school paralyzed to implement the next thing.”
Along the way, he has also used the approach to explore decision-making among groups of fisherman, farmers and stockbrokers.
Few scholars in education were looking at social networks, or had clear tools to explain the uncertainty of their findings—until Frank helped bring them into focus.
Bringing methods to the masses
Frank earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and joined the MSU College of Education in 1993. It was after a conference in the 1990s that, on the plane ride home, he started to work out a better way to explain the robustness of causal inferences.
He published a related article in Sociological Methods and Research in 2000. However, the useful approach to a method called sensitivity analysis didn’t garner much attention in the education research field until many years later when, at the suggestion of Schneider, Frank started holding workshops for colleagues.
Today the article gets cited about 100 times a year by researchers in many fields, and scholars can use a free online app, called KonFound-It!, to interpret their data in the forms of publishable statements and figures.
Frank said the concept has become even more relevant during the pandemic as scientists try to explain the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in real-people terms. He has been sharing knowledge with more people than ever thanks in part to the virtual format required for conferences in the past year.
Frank received a grant from the National Science Foundation with colleagues from MSU and University of Chicago to develop a Methods Training Institute for STEM Education Research, which will be held this summer. A related online workshop held in February 2021 month had over 3,500 people register.
Meanwhile, his roadmap for implementing instructional changes gleaned from research on social networks, called Focus, Fiddle and Friends, is being used or considered by school districts in multiple states. Similarly, he is helping schools with a model for school governance called Balancing Voices. This work is also expected to appear in a new statewide guide for teaching STEM.
In addition, Frank has also been among leading scholars exploring the role of social media in education.
“Social media makes us rethink the role of the schools as an organization, especially during the last year when learning is occurring remotely,” he said. “When educators get resources from inside the school, there’s an implicit exchange going on: ‘You help me and I’ll help you, and I am somehow accountable to you.’ If they jump online, such as using Teachers Pay Teachers, that dynamic is lost. They might adopt poor quality materials or radical pedagogy. We need to understand these underlying dynamics.”
It’s one the latest lines of research in his successful career thus far. But Frank is especially proud of the students he has interacted with and advised, including two dozen doctoral graduates working all over the world.
“What is very clear is that my students, current and former, sustain me,” said Frank. “They are brilliant, phenomenal, wonderful people. No one could have done enough as a professor to deserve the students I’ve had.”
Frank will be formally inducted as a member of the National Academy of Education, a role through which he looks forward to continuing to support junior scholars, during the annual meeting in November.
Aaron Pallas, formerly a faculty member in the MSU College of Education, is also in the group being inducted this year. He is now at Teachers College of Columbia University.
Frank is part of a team working to address racial inequities in school discipline by providing professional learning for teachers and studying how they influence one another’s disciplinary practices.