Leadership Opinion

Education Researchers Need to Step Up

The pandemic poses opportunities and challenges for researchers
By Rick Hess — January 15, 2021 5 min read
Researchers explore a data canyon
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This month, I published the 11th annual RHSU EduScholar Rankings, a snapshot of the researchers who most impacted education policy and practice in 2020. This past year, of course, we collected the metrics against the backdrop of a pandemic that has upended American education. Millions of students haven’t been in a school building since last March, and an uncounted number have disappeared from the radar of school systems. If ever there was a moment when practical, timely research was needed, this is it.

In a nation with tens of thousands of highly trained education researchers, school and system leaders have consistently told me they’ve been frustrated with the lack of useful research about how to better support remote learning and make it work for students. When asked about what they’ve leaned on, they’ve been far more likely to mention the offerings of Success Academy or Summit charter schools than academic research.

Parents, for their part, are hungry for guidance regarding home schooling strategies and which online resources are effective. While 3 million students are home-schooled each year, research on home schooling mostly consists of legal analyses and political-cultural accounts. The answers to parental queries have come largely from veteran home schoolers and parenting experts, not researchers.

And it’s not just tough, novel questions that go unanswered. There are still basic facts we don’t know. How many schools are closed? How many kids are actually showing up each day for remote classes? How much instruction is actually happening? When it comes to estimating how much students have or haven’t learned, the go-to authorities have been private vendors like assessment outfit NWEA or management consultants McKinsey & Company.

Now, don’t get me wrong: If you peruse this year’s Edu-Scholar rankings, you’ll see the names of researchers tackling important questions. And university-based scholars have made useful contributions during the pandemic. In just the past month, researchers at Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative and at Tulane’s Center for Research on Education Access and Choice have published valuable examinations of how school closures affected COVID-19 infection rates and local health outcomes. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, housed at the University of Washington, has done vital work tracking the provision of remote learning in real time. There are other such examples.

It’s not just tough, novel questions that go unanswered. There are still basic facts we don’t know.

At the same time, in education research, as across much of American life, COVID-19 has illuminated limitations that should have been evident well before the pandemic. Indeed, a survey of the top 50 researchers in this year’s EduScholar rankings—an acclaimed, accomplished, and impressively diverse group—turns up, at most, a single figure recognizable primarily as a scholar of online learning, education technology, tutoring, or home schooling. (That one researcher is Stanford’s Sam Wineburg, who studies how consumers judge the credibility of online content.)

Similarly, on its “coronavirus resources” page, the American Educational Research Association lists seven publications that promise an “overview” of online or remote learning; just two have been published since 2009. AERA lists nine publications that address online teaching; just three were published in the past decade. Given the pace of technological change, this is a problem.

Pointing this out isn’t about casting blame. It’s a reminder that we’ve evolved a massive education research apparatus that funds certain lines of inquiry rather than others; rewards elaborate econometric analyses or arcane theory-building more than practical advances; makes it professionally safer to use big, extant data sets than to partner with risk-embracing startups in collecting new data; and so strongly rewards publication in academic journals that dicey queries, which may not yield publishable results, are discouraged.

The education research ecosystem just isn’t very good at encouraging rigorous research that wanders beyond traditional school settings, for which public officials conveniently collect standardized outcomes and which get the lion’s share of federal research funds. Good measures of what’s happening in remote learning or home schooling are hard to come by, making such terrain less appealing to empirical researchers. This also means that young, empirically minded academics get few opportunities to see and master such work.

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Researchers explore a data canyon
J. R. Bee for Education Week

Moreover, while there are terrific “research-practice” collaborations between universities and local school districts (or states), 15 years spent hosting AEI’s K-12 Working Group has made painfully clear to me how scant the interaction is among the education research community and startups, ed-tech providers, or those working in nontraditional spaces. As a result, important research questions never get asked, and potentially important data never get collected. Twitter has been a better source of information on the recent explosive growth in the use of the Khan Academy than any academic outlet I know of.

And there’s a larger collective-action problem: While the nation might benefit mightily from an aggressive dive into pandemic remote learning, the work would demand much and might not pay off for those who do it. After struggling to collect and systematize messy data, for instance, intrepid researchers would have cause to fear that established econometricians would take the resulting data, run elaborate new statistical analyses, and walk away with the grant dollars and the laurels. In short, the social benefits of this work just aren’t matched by the individual incentives.

It’s both relevant and significant that the medical-research community—with its rich array of partnerships among academics, federal officials, biotech startups, and major pharmaceutical firms—developed, tested, and administered therapeutics and vaccines for a never-before-seen virus before the education research community could say anything much about how to improve Zoom instruction. This would seem to call for some reflection as to whether existing incentives, institutions, and practices are configured to produce the education research we need.

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Policy & Politics Opinion The Most Influential Education Researchers (in Charts)
January 15, 2021
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In the shadow of an unforeseen, devastating pandemic, this observation is more an invitation to rethink than a cause for finger-pointing. Universities, funders, professional associations, and the federal research establishment need to do more to equip researchers to ask different kinds of questions, support engagement between researchers and nontraditional providers or private vendors, and cultivate a broader array of measures. They need to seek ways to encourage and reward lines of inquiry that deliver timely, scientifically valid, and practical answers. And they need to expand support for the kinds of controlled trials and neuroscience research that can deepen our understanding of teaching and learning—whatever the context.

As we look to a 2021 made brighter by the gifts of medical research, it’s a propitious moment to ask how we can ensure that education research, too, is better equipped for all the challenges that await us.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as We’re in a Pandemic. Education Researchers Need to Step Up


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