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School & District Management Opinion

Research and Policy

By David H. Monk & Herbert J. Walberg — March 06, 2002 7 min read
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Can policy in education be based on research, as it is in medicine, finance, and other fields? How can policymakers best understand research findings? The reauthorization proposals for the federal office of educational research and improvement, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, have prompted renewed debate on these and similar questions. We think that recent positive experiences using models designed to bridge the long-standing divide between policy and research are worth considering.

New research models show potential to close the gap between policy and research.

But first, a closer look at the attitudes governing this great divide. From the researchers’ perspective, policymakers can seem agnostic, if not downright hostile, toward facts and the complexity of matters at hand. Policymakers also can appear to be partisans, pursuing either narrowly conceived self-interests or highly idealistic beliefs born of their long experience in determining what counts as “the right thing to do.” Policymakers’ interest in research findings often seems, to researchers, to extend only as far as these findings coincide with their own pre-existing values and beliefs.

From the policymakers’ perspective, on the other hand, research and evaluation are inevitably frustrating endeavors because studies often cannot be completed quickly and definitively enough to be useful. To them, researchers appear to be hopelessly caught up in debates over technical detail. “You can’t get a straight answer to even the simplest question” is a common lament. Everything “depends” on something else, and the sad reality is that the “better” the research, the more guarded seem to be its conclusions and implications.

From the policymakers’ viewpoint, dollar after dollar goes into this bottomless pit of “research” and, along the way, a remarkable degree of arrogance emerges among its practitioners. They say they are routinely treated to scholars who are openly contemptuous of those in the policymaking and political arenas. Meanwhile, they become increasingly convinced that scholars have very little to add to their deliberations.

Thus, we have quite a standoff, with policymakers pushing for closure and clarity, while researchers plead for greater sophistication and willingness to deal directly with the nuance that is a real part of educational phenomena.

While there is reason to be discouraged about the prospects for progress, two independent but parallel efforts are helping, we think, to narrow the split. What connects these two initiatives is a design that takes full advantage of researchers’ desire to be helpful and productive and joins it with the realization among policymakers at some level that more does need to be known.

In both these examples, an opportunity has been provided for established researchers to report on work already under way. The task was to adapt that existing work to a particular context and deal with its implications for practice. One of our cases involves a state and a series of policy questions and issues; the other, a significant policy question that transcends geography. Both, we think, have implications for others.

Since the early 1990s, the New York state board of regents has been commissioning “policy briefs” from researchers that examine specific issues facing the board. Topics have varied widely, across revenue issues, such as the use of the property tax to support schools, to matters of equity and efficiency in the use of public dollars to improve pupil performance. The formula has been simple, and it has worked well: Prominent scholars known for their work in a selected policy area have been identified and invited to participate. After a one-day briefing in the state capital to familiarize them with the New York particulars, the scholars are asked to prepare policy briefs that adapt what they already know about the topic to the New York context. The briefs then are presented to policymakers in a public forum.

The key is to seek the nation's top talent, craft an opportunity for them to draw on already completed work, and hold out the possibility of having genuine influence on public policy.

We have assembled more than 30 of these policy briefs (now available from the New York state education department). Attracting top academic talent has not been a problem, even though the briefs usually must be prepared quickly. The key, we have learned, is to seek the nation’s top talent, craft an opportunity for them to draw on already completed work, and hold out the possibility of having genuine influence on public policy.

The second effort at bridging the worlds of research and policy was built around a national invitational conference sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University in Philadelphia, one of the federally supported regional educational laboratories. Here the idea was to share outstanding work on the economics of education with the field’s “establishment.” In particular, we wanted to respond to Stanford University professor Martin Carnoy’s observation in the Oct. 25, 2000, issue of Education Week that “educators ... look at economists as dangerous people who don’t know schools.” (“Economic Growth,” Oct. 25, 2000.)

Our sense was that even though policymakers may not be fond of economic lines of analysis, mutual dialogue and some stretching on both sides might bridge the gap and lead to a publication that could help break down these barriers. We also thought that this regional lab would be an ideal host for such an effort, and we found an enthusiastic partner in its director, the late Margaret C. Wang.

Several conference features worked particularly well. First, we focused largely on outstanding assistant professors. We wanted leading-edge research, and suspected we could count on this group to be responsive to deadlines. We also hoped to inform the next generation of senior scholars about policymakers’ concerns. So, we asked the authors to write for the policymakers we were intending to reach—not for fellow economists and statisticians.

At the conference, we avoided the usual paper presentations by authors. Instead, conclusions from precirculated papers were briefly highlighted by the participants, who were drawn from the ranks of federal, state, and local policymakers. The main work of the conference took place in breakout sessions, so that both scholars and policymakers had to work together and write recommendations for both research and policy. (The book containing the revised papers and recommendations, Improving Educational Productivity, has just been published by Information Age Press of Greenwich, Conn.)

It is useful for policymakers to see both the convergence and divergence of scholarly findings and conclusions. This can indicate degrees of confidence and caution for policy.

There were some tense moments—not just between policymakers and scholars, but also within the two groups. But we think it is useful for policymakers to see both the convergence and divergence of scholarly findings and conclusions. This can indicate degrees of confidence and caution for policy. Similarly, researchers need to know both what concerns policymakers and how they think about policy.

The principles that guided both of these bridging models seem adaptable elsewhere for strengthening the connections between research and policymaking. We are working on follow-up conferences designed to take advantage of what we learned. In future conferences on reading, leadership, moral development, and other topics, the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success plans to place preconference papers and conference recommendations on the Internet immediately, and to foster a continuing dialogue among scholars, policymakers, and others.

Meanwhile, the regents in New York state have now institutionalized what started as an ad hoc set of topic-based symposia structured around commissioned policy briefs. The result has been the creation of an entity known as the Education Finance Research Consortium, or EFRC, whose Web site can be viewed at www.albany.edu/edfin. The consortium is planning the next in its series of policy symposia, Making Standards Real: Addressing Barriers to Learning, tentatively scheduled for late November of this year.

We are mindful of the pitfalls involved in such efforts. But we believe that these kinds of initiatives—based on deliberation, mutual respect, a well-honed focus, and open lines of communication—can be models in our renewed effort to close the gap between policy and research that has existed for far too long in education.

David H. Monk is the dean of the college of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. Herbert J. Walberg is an emeritus professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Research and Policy

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