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School & District Management Opinion

Scholars’ Findings Must Be Part of K-12 Conversation

By James E. Ryan — January 09, 2015 3 min read
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Education Week Commentary asked three education school deans the following question: How Does an Edu-Scholar Influence K-12 Policy? Below is a response from Harvard’s James E. Ryan.
Read more: Academics Can’t Shy Away From Public Role | Focus Research on K-12 Practice Needs

In thinking about whether academics should be encouraged to participate more in the public conversation about K-12 education, it helps to begin by considering what they might contribute. There is no shortage of opinions about education, nor is there a shortage of pundits eager to share theirs. So it can’t be that academics are needed simply to keep the conversation going. Many insightful participants are already in the debate.

What academics can offer is their expertise. This, in turn, suggests that we ought to distinguish between academics, on the one hand, and their ideas and research on the other, and we should be mostly concerned that their ideas and research are part of the conversation. If academics personally want to take part in debates about K-12 education, they should be encouraged to do so when they can share their expertise faithfully. Given the distorting tendencies of the public square, however, this is not always easy.

The real challenge, as I see it, is that many higher-ed faculty members have neither the time nor the inclination to be full participants in the ongoing conversation due, in part, to the highly politicized nature of the conversation. As a result, the good research and creative ideas of academic experts are often left to languish in academic journals. This is a genuine problem, because it means that the opinions often formed and offered by those outside the academic walls are done so without reference to existing evidence about what works and what does not. This is also not a problem that faculty alone should be expected to solve.

Instead, commentators—both pundits and journalists—as well as academic institutions can and should play a role. Pundits could pay more attention to existing research and evidence, bringing informed ideas and knowledge into the conversation and distinguishing between strong and specious studies. Too often, education commentary is devoid of evidence, and education reporting, in an effort to appear balanced, presents evidence on both sides of an issue as if the research is in equipoise when, in reality, it is quite lopsided. This fuels the false impression that collectively we know little about education, gives perverse incentives to researchers, and cheapens all education research by treating weak studies with the same respect as rigorous ones.

Institutions of higher education can and should help by disseminating ideas and research produced by their faculties in a way that is accessible to nonacademics. At the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for example, we have created the Usable Knowledge website. It offers brief summaries of the key findings of faculty research, faculty Q&As, and relevant video demonstrations. Rather than place the responsibility for disseminating the work on the shoulders of our researchers, we have created a small team that helps our faculty translate its research for players in the K-12 field—teachers, principals, policymakers, and pundits—who may lack the time and expertise to wade through a long article in an academic journal. The hope, of course, is that the good work produced by our faculty will not only enter the public debate, but also influence it positively. That should be the goal of our role in the public square: to ensure that the work of researchers is included in the K-12 conversation.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Make Research Accessible

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