To the Editor:
I read the recent Commentary collection on public scholarship (“Want to Be a Public Scholar? Here’s What You Need to Know,” January 16, 2019). After 50 years in public education, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that education-research findings have little effect on the development of education policy. There are several reasons why this is the case.
Most of the research in education is not very compelling. Too many empirical studies are never replicated, and there are numerous insignificant findings on many educational topics. Studies are also often based upon small populations, and few would be impactful for policy considerations.
I’ve also come to realize that policymakers consider more than just research findings when arriving at educational policy. Research often loses out to cost or lack of community acceptance to change. As Cornelia Dean noted in her insightful 2017 book Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin, the public arena is ruled by emotions, ideology, and sometimes prejudice.
Policymakers also assess new information based on their prior perceptions and tend to value information dismissing facts that don’t fit their views. Still, I’d like to believe that increased engagement between researchers and key policymakers can make a difference in students’ lives.
However, researchers who travel this path need to be aware of potential drawbacks. Overhyped research findings based upon a weak foundation of studies can easily slip into advocacy, thus public release of findings before they are carefully vetted can be problematic. Some professional journals have long refused to publish any research article whose contents have substantially been made public before publication in the journal, which may be a serious disincentive for researchers.
William J. Price
Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership
Eastern Michigan University
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Role of Public Scholarship