School & District Management Opinion

Ed. Researchers, Here’s How to Actually Improve Policy

Four lessons to make your scholarship count
By Katharine O. Strunk — January 15, 2019 3 min read
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When I was coming up as a researcher (so, so long ago), there wasn’t as much focus on public scholarship. Because I went to graduate school and received most of my how-to advice long before the age of Twitter, I didn’t get a lot of guidance on how to have a public presence in the era of social media. What I did learn from many of the scholars with whom I studied and worked, however, was a strong ethos that academics could not only pursue research to benefit the field and the academy, but also scholarship in service of the public good.

This is a different version of “public scholarship.” It is not about getting research into the public sphere, entering the public debate, or influencing how colleagues or the media understand and conceive of a specific issue or set of studies. Rather, it is about developing and enacting a research agenda that is intended to help policymakers improve the policies, programs, and practices that have an impact on public school students and educators.

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Education Week Commentary teamed up with Frederick M. Hess to ask four accomplished scholars a simple question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on how to be a public scholar?

Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year’s new Edu-Scholar data by the Education Week Research Center.

Doing this, and doing it well, is hard. I’ve had some great role models along the way—people in academia and other research institutions, as well as people working in state and local governments—who have been pursuing this kind of scholarship since long before “researcher-policymaker partnerships” became the catchphrase it is today. So, in the spirit of advice, here are four of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way from researchers and policymakers who are pursuing research that can be used to improve policy and practice, and as a result (we hope) public education.

Research does not have to be done to or even about public schools and their leaders and students. Rather, research can be pursued with our partners in public schools. Developing a research agenda with public school leaders—whether at the school, district, or state levels—ensures that we are addressing the questions to which they most need answers.

It is about developing and enacting a research agenda that is intended to help policymakers improve the policies, programs, and practices that have an impact on public school students and educators."

There are multiple ways to tackle the same questions. Some questions are more useful to policymakers and practitioners at certain times and for certain reasons than others. If we want our research to be the most useful to our policymaker and practitioner partners, we may need to get out of our own comfort zones and work with scholars who look at research in different ways than we do. Doing this—focusing on the did it work questions as well as the why, when, how, and for whom questions—can provide partners with the information they can use to improve policies and programs.

Academic timelines do not match policy timelines. While we are trained to wait to release findings until we feel supremely confident they are fully cooked—every specification check has been run and every interview has been coded and analyzed—our partners can’t always wait for the final thing before they need to act. It took me a long time to understand that it is better to provide continuous feedback to our policymaker partners, with appropriate caveats, so that they can act with some information, rather than wait to provide them with the perfect information, only to be frustrated that they moved along without us.

Public-oriented research is not for everyone. It’s time-consuming, and it can be frustrating. The traditional academic structures do not always (or often) reward this kind of scholarship. (And it probably doesn’t even help you get in Rick Hess’ Edu-Scholar rankings.) But it is also rewarding in ways I could not have conceived when I enrolled in my first econometrics class or published my first manuscript. It takes academics out of the ivory tower and into the public sphere. It is public scholarship.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as What True Public Scholarship Looks Like


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