School & District Management Opinion

Education Research Needs a Policy Makeover

By Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj — January 11, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The largely unexpected results of the 2016 presidential race sent shock waves through many sectors of society. Pollsters and members of the news media have had to publicly come to terms with their failures to predict the outcome of the election—the win of President-elect Donald Trump—or to accurately capture the views of a large proportion of the American electorate. On the other hand, many academics in institutions of higher education have gone through a private process of reflection about how to make sense of evidence indicating their perspectives are out of sync with a large swath of the public.

While a majority of university-based researchers consider themselves politically progressive—this has been the case historically and in the present day—current political and ideological divides are having an impact on relationships between students and faculty in different and potentially more damaging ways than in the past. Discussions about the consequences of having so few conservative voices on university faculties are not new, but this election brought to light the degree to which academics have been operating in echo chambers.

How Left-Leaning Are Universities?

Explore the geographic distribution of 2017 RHSU Edu-Scholars concentrations and the political composition of their universities’ faculty.


Source: Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein (Econ Journal Watch, 2016); Associated Press

Because humans have a natural desire to associate with like-minded people, it is no surprise that researchers tend to collaborate with colleagues who share their worldviews and are similarly motivated to study the same empirical questions. But if the job of education researchers (of whom I am one) is to produce the most rigorous, policy-relevant research possible, we are limiting ourselves by staying in our comfort zone.

This harms the quality of our work. The recent emphasis in higher education on interdisciplinary, multi-method research has not included a similar push for the inclusion of multiple ideological perspectives. The tendency to work with scholars who concur on political and policy-related questions contradicts evidence about the value of diverse perspectives for improved decisionmaking.

See Also

For more in this package, please visit:

Our society also suffers from a lack of examples inside and outside the academy for how to engage people from across the ideological spectrum in constructive research and policy debates. Publicly engaged researchers are uniquely poised to leverage their platforms—such as academic publications, conference panels, public-speaking events, Twitter, and blogposts—to model the kind of productive dialogue that used to take place decades ago on the floor of the U.S. Senate, in television roundtables, and in university lecture halls. Such exchanges, in which ideas were tested and challenged on merits, not political grounds, can serve to strengthen policy proposals and opportunities for collaboration with colleagues from across the aisle.

Who Are the 2017 RHSU Edu-Scholar Rising Stars?

This table lists the top 10 junior scholars who have not yet received tenure, according to the 2017 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings.


President-elect Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos, a long-standing advocate of school vouchers and limited regulation of charter schools, for secretary of education is a telling example of both the dialogue that research and practice stand to benefit from and the ideological clashes that are distracting us.

A small cadre of scholars responded to the announcement of DeVos’ selection by engaging in highly public, evidenced-based discussions about the impacts of charter schools and voucher programs. At the same time, other educators and advocates seized the spotlight on charter schools and voucher programs to advance purely ideological positions for or against such policies. The cacophony of voices too easily drowns out a reasoned exchange of ideas, and the power of informed debates to positively influence policy and public opinion gets diluted.

The moment is ripe for institutions of higher education and their researchers to invest in ways to better fulfill important societal functions as bastions of civil debate and laboratories for well-balanced peer-reviewed research.

To do so, universities should create formal opportunities for scholars of diverse methodological, disciplinary, and ideological perspectives to engage with each other’s work and to model how respectful exchanges and debates can occur. This could happen, for example, through regularly scheduled roundtables, reading groups, or incentives for faculty members who might have little reason to interact to co-develop and co-teach courses.

The Public Influence of Edu-Scholars

Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, and Gloria Ladson-Billings took the top three spots in the 2017 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings. Click on the chart below to learn who took the other two spots. (The affiliations cited are drawn from the scholars’ CVs.)


Faculty members should also commit to ensuring that their classroom climates are hospitable to all students. This means being cognizant of behaviors that may silence students whose opinions do not conform to the majority (often progressive) views. Faculty members should also facilitate debate among students in a supportive environment.

Finally, all researchers should engage in reflexivity: that is, work to identify the ideological underpinnings of their own work. Understanding how personal ideologies may influence approaches to research—what questions the authors ask, the theoretical foundations of their work, and the methods they employ—can be a starting point for new ways to be a publicly engaged scholar. Such self-awareness may prompt researchers and policymakers alike to identify their own blind spots and pursue professional relationships that advance their knowledge of alternate viewpoints.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Education Research Needs a Policy Makeover

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Educators' Support for COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates Is Rising Dramatically
Nearly 60 percent of educators say students who are old enough to receive COVID vaccines should be required to get them to attend school.

4 min read
Mariah Vaughn, a 15-year-old Highland Park student, prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during the vaccine clinic at Topeka High School on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.
Mariah Vaughn, 15, a student at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kan., prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at her school in August.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
School & District Management 10 Ways to Tackle Education's Urgent Challenges
As the school year gets underway, we ask hard questions about education’s biggest challenges and offer some solutions.
2 min read
Conceptual Image of schools preparing for the pandemic
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
School & District Management Reported Essay Principals Need Social-Emotional Support, Too
By overlooking the well-being of their school leaders, districts could limit how much their schools can flourish.
7 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
School & District Management From Our Research Center Educator Stress, Anti-Racism, and Pandemic Response: How You're Feeling
A new nationally representative survey offers key takeaways from teachers, principals, and district leaders.
EdWeek Research Center
1 min read
2021 BI COVER no text DATA crop
Pep Montserrat for Education Week