School & District Management

Scholars Seek New Audience For Research

By Debra Viadero — March 26, 1997 7 min read
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When 11,000 education researchers descend on Chicago this week, they’ll be doing more than talking with one another about regression coefficients and multivariate analyses.

Some of them will get on a bus and visit 10 local schools that are experimenting with reforms. Others will attend discussions on researchers’ relations with the media. And some will meet with teachers who are engaged in classroom research or with state and local policymakers looking for new ideas.

Those activities are part of a five-year effort to chart a new course for the 81-year-old American Educational Research Association--and, by extension, for the field as a whole.

Rather than communicating with each other through obscure journals or in hotel ballrooms, the scholars at the top of the organization are starting to think hard--in some cases for the first time--about how to get their message out to a new audience.

“Many of us feel strongly that because education is a public endeavor ... we have to be talking to the public, and we have to use language that is understandable and yet grounded in scholarly work,” said Penelope L. Peterson, the Michigan State University education professor who heads the 23,000-member group, which was scheduled to meet March 24-28.

Breaking Barriers

When it comes to getting research into the hands of classroom educators, the field has long suffered from a kind of paralysis. Many of the journals in which researchers traditionally publish their findings are too dense and time-consuming for busy teachers and administrators.

At the same time, mainstream newspapers and television news programs typically feature few education research stories. The media rarely grant education studies the credibility given to research in medicine or other “hard” sciences.

And the parents and policymakers who do look to school research get frustrated when they can’t wring from education researchers what they need most: definitive answers on how to improve their schools.

“Researchers, when asked to say this works or that doesn’t, are very reluctant,” said Max McConkey, the director of marketing and communications for WestEd, a San Francisco think tank. He chaired a committee formed to improve the AERA’s outreach efforts. “The fear is that two months or a year from now someone else will come along and say, ‘You’re all wet.’”

For their part, some researchers say their reluctance to open up to wider audiences is warranted.

“Having been quoted in newspapers myself I can say that oftentimes they look nothing like what you said,” said Elliott W. Eisner, a professor of education and art at Stanford University and a past president of the research group.

Moreover, he and other researchers say, the media tend to simplify research, sometimes losing complexities that scholars have taken pains to identify and explain.

New Directions

Many researchers also worry that their methods and messages will be diluted in the classroom by teachers and school administrators. If those approaches fail as a result, researchers fear the blame will attach unfairly to them.

Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner, for example, has expressed both astonishment and frustration at the ways his “multiple intelligences” theory has been applied--and misapplied--in schools.

To some extent, education has always had what Ms. Peterson called “public intellectuals"--authors such as Mr. Gardner, Mike Rose, and David C. Berliner who write for nonscholarly audiences. But most researchers simply don’t know how to tailor their messages for broad consumption.

“Most, like me, were taught to write in the style of the [American Psychological Association], which is very rigid,” Ms. Peterson said. “No one even suggested to me that I might want to write for other audiences.”

The AERA’s once-isolationist posture was typical of the profession. While the American Medical Association has raised public relations to an art, the AERA, until four years ago, never even issued press releases advertising articles from its journals.

By the early 1990s, however, sentiment was growing within the organization that researchers needed to take a greater hand in disseminating their findings.

“I think there was a certain amount of frustration that folks were engaged in research and finding out some real important things about education and finding the information really wasn’t getting anywhere,” said Denise McKeon, the AERA’s outreach director.

“Most of us feel the reason we do our work is to make a difference in the lives of children and teachers and parents,” said Annemarie S. Palincsar, a University of Michigan researcher who chaired a recent task force that re-examined the organization’s direction.

As a result of the panel’s work, the association has:

  • Begun publishing monographs that discuss research in simpler, more engaging terms;
  • Formed an outreach committee to oversee efforts to make research more accessible to state and local policymakers, school personnel, and the media;
  • Hired Ms. McKeon as its full-time outreach director;
  • Offered mini-courses at its annual conference on dealing with the media; and
  • Forged links with other professional education and policymaking groups, such as the American Federation of Teachers.

Moreover, “the last several presidents have been people committed to having the organization better engage the world of practice,” remarked Arthur E. Wise, the current head of the outreach committee.

At this week’s convention, for example, Ms. Peterson will give her presidential address on “Learning to Talk with New Audiences About Educational Research.”

The organization has scheduled conference sessions of special interest to teachers and administrators on a single day--March 27. For $15, school-based educators can attend the conference on that day only.

“In the past, it felt like the meeting was sort of like a floating dirigible that would land in one urban site or another but we’d all stay inside,” said Louise Cherry Wilkinson, dean of the Rutgers University’s graduate school of education and chair of this year’s convention program.

Spreading the Word

It’s too soon to say whether the AERA’s new efforts signal a sea change for the field at large. But a handful of other efforts suggest that at least some researchers are giving the issue serious thought.

For example, the directors of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a 50-nation research project that released results last fall, gave unprecedented consideration to public relations.

Toward that end, the project hired a New York-based communications firm to help the researchers sharpen their message for a mainstream audience, said William H. Schmidt, the University of Michigan professor who headed the study.

The experts even coached Mr. Schmidt on speaking to radio, television, and print reporters.

“I’m a statistician and I know how to do that kind of stuff,” Mr. Schmidt said. “But I don’t know how to get the word out.”

He and the other researchers also spent months crisscrossing the country, carrying their findings to business leaders, math and science educators, and state governors. As a result, articles about the study appeared in 800 newspapers.

“And the story the media presented was the story we wanted them to present,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Promising Signs

There are other signs of progress. Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor who years ago established a center on state education policy in California, was recently named one of the 10 most influential people in Sacramento by a policy journal.

And the National Academy of Sciences last year convened a panel to determine whether education research could benefit from the kind of focused strategic planning that gave a boost to highway-research efforts in the 1970s. (“A Model Roadway: Research Panel May Follow Highway-Funding Path,” July 10, 1996.)

Many researchers say the movement to enlist classroom teachers as partners in school-based research, which has been growing for several years, is yet another example of academicians branching out from their ivory towers.

The AERA’s governing council in January adopted in principle a set of recommendations from Ms. Palincsar’s planning committee for carrying the outreach efforts to the next level.

The recommendations call for creating a permanent committee charged with finding new mechanisms for communicating research. Among its activities, the committee would identify critical issues on which the organization might sum up existing research or pull together a consensus statement.

The committee would also take a hand in seeing that promising education programs are evaluated, and would seek funding for a “rapid-response team” of experts who could address hot topics.

“I don’t know that we’re at a point right now where every researcher thinks about a number of different audiences for their work,” Ms. McKeon said. “But we will be one day.”

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