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What Makes Research Useful?

By Nancy Barnes — April 25, 2001 11 min read
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I want to advocate an approach to research in education that makes teachers’ questions and teachers’ purposes central.

Research serves many different purposes in public education: It informs policy discussions and bolsters political debates, grants authority to reform initiatives, guides program evaluations, and advances the careers of the academics who conduct it. It is rare, however, for educational research to serve the day-to-day purposes of the teachers and schools that are also its subjects. Or at least it doesn’t serve them directly. No wonder schools are often skeptical or defensive when faced with research proposals.

I want to advocate an approach to research in education that makes teachers’ questions and teachers’ purposes central. For the last five years, I’ve worked as an ethnographer on the evaluation of the schools in the New York Networks for School Renewal, schools that make up the Annenberg Challenge in New York City. Specifically, I’ve been part of a “participatory” component of the project designed to involve the schools directly.

Participatory teacher research is useful research for the schools that do it, as this teacher’s observation reveals: “One of the things we realized as we did our second round of interviews was that the very process of researching about our work had had an impact on the work itself. Because we were members of the staff ourselves, we had a deep commitment to having this work go well. It seemed natural to us to use the feedback to make changes as we went along, rather than simply put the data away in a drawer.”

The NYNSR schools number more than 120. They are small urban public schools with distinctive visions and school cultures. But they share a set of fundamental beliefs with other small schools all across the country. As described in a recent study of such schools in Chicago, “Small Schools: Great Strides,” these schools are designed “to create small, intimate learning communities where students are well known and can be pushed and encouraged by adults who care for and about them; to reduce the isolation that too often seeds alienation and violence; to reduce the devastating discrepancies in the achievement gap that plague poorer children and, too often, children of color; and to encourage teachers to use their intelligence and their experience to help students succeed.”

Small schools are actively questioning and reinventing many aspects of how they do business in order to address this shared vision. The schools in the New York Networks are further characterized by democratic, often teacher-run staff organizations and a deep commitment to educating all of the city’s young people well. It is no surprise, given this profile, that the same schools have attracted idealistic young teachers with strong liberal arts educations who want to be active in progressive school reform.

Michael Patton, talking about qualitative program evaluation, asserts that “purpose is the controlling force in research.” If we start with this as a working assumption, then the many different purposes served by educational research become signposts, pointing to the various ways in which concrete research endeavors can make a difference. But the question remains: Useful to whom? Policymakers and funders are important, no doubt about it. But shouldn’t research that serves the purposes of specific teachers and particular schools be as legitimate as the more traditional forms of research? Practitioners should have the opportunity to figure out what questions matter to their communities and pursue the answers to those questions.

Teachers in new small schools wear an astonishing number of different hats. They plan innovative curricula while addressing the demands of high-stakes testing. They devote themselves to the learning of their individual students and, often, the lives of their students’ families, while teaching complex, heterogeneous classes. They collaborate on interdisciplinary teaching teams and take responsibility for the success of their schools as whole communities, not just their own classrooms. It is impressive that such busy people juggling so many demands can make the time for research at all.


Participatory research has taught me important lessons about what creates and sustains a school culture in which teachers can examine, reflect on, and improve their practice. I would like to describe how this approach to inquiry has worked at one school, East Side Community High School, a grades 7-12 school in Manhattan that graduated its third senior class last June. The key criteria for the project that East Side joined were two. First, the practitioners had to formulate a question that was both deep and broad enough to sustain rigorous inquiry over time, with the potential to improve practice throughout their school. East Side’s original question asked how teachers can support and encourage each other through staff development. The second criterion was that a significant group of teachers had to be involved in order to ensure truly “school based” research, not simply the work of a few individuals.

Participatory research has taught me important lessons about what creates and sustains a school culture in which teachers can examine, reflect on, and improve their practice.

How can projects like the one at East Side produce genuinely useful research? From our New York experience, the following three ways emerge:

  • Teachers engaged in inquiry projects that they have designed get to think about things that matter in their schools. Not surprisingly, the same things often matter in other small schools.

East Side chose to construct and study an in-house professional-development scheme run by teachers for teachers. Everyone at the school was surveyed to discover what would be helpful in terms of staff development. A basic structure of weekly meetings was devised: vertical teams of teachers in humanities, math, and science, from grades 7 through 12; and theme-based discussion groups that involved people from all disciplines on topics such as independent reading and research methods, teaching skills to heterogeneous classes, and race and gender in the classroom. The ongoing activities were documented, and staff members were interviewed in depth at intervals during each year.

Constructing professional-development activities in tandem with teacher research has added a layer of intellectual work, as teachers’ ideas and observations are taken seriously—and questioned seriously—by their colleagues. Two of the teachers at East Side observe that “discussions were governed by the reality of the classroom teachers in the school, so that the recommendations that emerged from the group were not about personal attitudes or slanted perspectives, but reflected the needs of the staff as a whole.”

Public school teachers, like the rest of us, think and learn well when they can pose questions about things that feel urgent, troubling, or challenging to them. Teacher research questions can unearth difficult topics, such as the one identified by this 10th grade teacher: “There is a tension between democracy and efficiency that underlies the kind of school we work in. We were founded under democratic principles. Most of us are accustomed to talking things out until we can come to a unified decision. Theoretically this is powerful; practically, it is often overwhelming when there are other things that take priority over the conversation.”

  • Participatory school-based research, like other forms of action research, can actually make changes and fix things, as well as document and evaluate. This produces concrete results and builds a democratic community.

One consequence of repeatedly interviewing the entire East Side staff about the various staff meetings was that the findings produced visible changes, which gave teachers a significant sense of ownership and accomplishment. The potential for decisionmaking and action is a critical part of building an active, democratically run staff in which teachers think independently about how their school operates and how their students are faring. This, in turn, is a key to recruitment and retention of strong, well- educated teachers who see themselves as professionals. A 9th grade humanities teacher, also the coordinator of the discussion groups, offers advice about research to other schools: “Be flexible. Try something you think might work and be ready to change it if it’s not working.”

Wonderful, dedicated teachers come to schools like East Side because of their commitment to social change and to educational equity, including rigorous academic preparation for poor kids and kids of color. The East Side professional-development project both gave voice to teachers’ concerns through surveys and interviews, and recognized intellectual interests and leadership in what the teachers sometimes call “the big picture.”

Practitioners want data that speak to the immediate situations they face when they get to work in the morning.

In New York City, the big picture has been dominated by the continuing struggles over the state’s new regents’ examinations. School-based research creates a place where teachers who might otherwise function in isolation can talk honestly about complicated issues that have serious implications for their school, such as how to balance test preparation with innovative academic curricula.

  • Teachers making decisions and exercising power in the course of an inquiry project (not just having their voices included) is a meaningful new form of accountability and leadership development in small schools.

Over the years, I’ve encountered this dynamic in various schools. In one, teachers accustomed to deferring to “expert” authority objected to a report I had written and then entered into revising it with me. Teachers in another school decided to refocus a substantial research project in midstream because their priorities had shifted in response to events at their school.

At East Side, the data indicate that teachers at different points in their careers need professional development to be significantly different. This finding has sparked rethinking and restructuring.

Participatory research thus yields new forms of internal accountability as people monitor changes and take responsibility for outcomes. A further result of the process is to strengthen leadership. Two teachers initiated the project at East Side. Their leadership has evolved into a group of coordinators, tripling the number of teachers who are guiding the project.

The two teachers who conceived the idea received a “practitioner mentor” grant from the Spencer Foundation this year, which permits them to reach out to more small schools interested in exploring teacher-led staff development and teacher research. Such recognition encourages exactly the independent, professional teachers everyone is looking for.

Teachers’ inquiry projects seldom look like conventional research. We must resist the pressures to make teachers’ questions or choice of methods consistent with large-scale academic investigations. They may seem uninterested in outcome studies derived from quantitative data, for example, even though they are intensely interested in why certain children miss school so much, or why some kids take longer to graduate than others.


What teachers want to know is what anthropologists have come to call “local knowledge.” Practitioners want data that speak to the immediate situations they face when they get to work in the morning. School-based research is itself one important answer to my question about what sustains a culture in which teachers are moved to examine and improve their practice.

Teacher research recognizes public school teachers as doing serious intellectual work that improves the education they are in charge of.

Ethnographic studies in education often speak in terms of school “cultures,” which can be a problematic notion. This time, it’s right on the money. Research in public education, like public education itself, mirrors many other social inequalities. Consider the observation made by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo: “The more power one has, the less culture one enjoys, and the more culture one has, the less power one wields.” With respect to the conduct of research in education, the people who live in schools—primarily teachers and students—are those who have more culture.

The “purposes” of research with which I began loom large again. School-based participatory research runs counter to traditional research, in which a credentialed outsider asserts that something in the life of a given school is significant and the school has to respond. It seems as though the authority of research is always greater the farther away the researchers stand from the daily life of K-12 classrooms full of kids.

University researchers carry more authority, for example, than professors of education who supervise teacher training; both groups have more clout than people employed by public school systems, and so on. Virtually everyone else has more influence over research agendas than teachers themselves.

Practitioner research is clearly not powerful research in the settings where dollars are allocated and the fates of programs are determined. Teachers do indeed have less power than those outsiders who come to study their school cultures. Teacher research is, however, valuable to the people who are doing it. This is a vital purpose.

School-based inquiry presents practitioners with opportunities to resist, disrupt, and prevail over the very inequalities that research (like schooling itself) reflects and reproduces. Teacher research answers important questions and directs meaningful changes. It recognizes public school teachers as doing serious intellectual work that improves the education they are in charge of.

This is useful research.


Nancy Barnes is a cultural anthropologist on the faculty of Lang College at the New School University in New York City. She also conducts participatory school-based research projects with public school teachers in the city who are active in school reform.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as What Makes Research Useful?

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