School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Let Education Research Languish in Academic Journals

3 ways to move research into the real world of schools
By John Papay — January 18, 2022 3 min read
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Ensuring that research crosses the divide to practice has been a long-standing challenge in the academy. There is tremendous value in disseminating research broadly, as highlighted by the Edu-Scholar Rankings. To “move ideas from the pages of barely read journals,” as rankings creator Rick Hess writes, “into the real world of policy and practice” should be a goal of both scholars and educators.

An approach distinct from broad dissemination of research results—but complementary to it—is that of “research-practice partnerships,” where researchers and practitioners enter into collaborations with specific aims. By targeting particular policy dilemmas and providing timely and actionable evidence, such RPPs can influence local decisions directly.

Over the past decade, I have been part of and learned from partnerships with Massachusetts, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, the Providence public schools/Rhode Island, and a group of teacher-professional-learning organizations (the Research Partnership for Professional Learning or RPPL). All these partnerships were robust—exploring a range of questions, not undertaking just a single study—and sustained over time. They relied on active engagement from policymakers and practitioners and built on some of the best thinking of leaders in this field, such as Nate Schwartz and Carrie Conaway.

I see several key lessons drawn from reflections on what has worked—and what hasn’t—in our work together:

  • Co-construct a living research agenda to build core knowledge in a single area. Such agendas should trace out a line of inquiry that builds on existing research evidence and tackles questions of central interest to policymakers and the research community. Building such an agenda is challenging but worthwhile. The RPPL partnership recently engaged in this process, articulating a learning agenda to structure our partnership work over the next several years. Such agendas can help ensure that long-standing partnerships build strong evidence in core areas while also allowing for nimble analysis of real-time challenges. Developing and then regularly revisiting this agenda ensures that all sides of the partnership have their needs met.

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  • Conduct analysis to support policy decisions without the potential for academic publication. Research designs that support causal inferences and rich statistical descriptions of problems—the stuff of journal articles—clearly have a place in any strong partnership. But simple descriptive statistics that provide new insights can be equally powerful for policy impact. From a policy perspective, a statistic that illuminates an issue in a new way can be the most powerful part of an analysis. And sometimes policymakers need quick information that their internal research shops cannot provide. Doing smart analysis can provide timely data to inform key decisions.
  • Build dissemination structures that engage program staff and stakeholders beyond the research team. Many partnerships—including the ones I’ve worked with—began when academics engaged with state or district research teams. Bringing in program staff outside the research team and other stakeholders beyond the agency makes the partnerships more effective. For example, in Massachusetts, we now hold triannual briefings for a wider audience of internal stakeholders and have worked to develop evidence of interest to the state K-12 and higher education boards. A broader base of stakeholders helps increase the influence of research evidence and ensures that the work lives beyond a single champion.

The growing success of smart, well-funded RPPs has already led to new and innovative partnership arrangements. With adequate support, robust and sustained partnerships could play a major role in making evidence-informed policymaking the new normal for the nation’s schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Build a Strong Foundation


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