Opinion
Policy & Politics Opinion

Why Do So Many Ed. Researchers Ignore Politics?

Yes, you can study politics without being a partisan hack
By Jon Valant — January 15, 2021 4 min read
Two figures argue over a a mountain of data

It’s a little puzzling that the research community doesn’t pay more attention to the politics of education. Schools are core public institutions, but political scientists haven’t shown much interest in education. Even the lure of rich data hasn’t attracted them like it has attracted other social scientists. And the education community, in turn, hasn’t shown much interest in politics, which are central to understanding the American educational system as it was, is, and could be.

That’s unfortunate. Pick just about any important question in education, and the answer involves politics. Why do we assign students to schools as we do? Why is Miguel Cardona poised to become the U.S. education secretary (and what can he do)? Why, again, do we pay teachers for master’s degrees? And why can’t we solve problems that we’ve understood for decades?

We need rigorous studies of these types of questions. The politics of education is complex, with unique webs of governing authority and stakeholders. Yet the politics of education seems relegated to the shadows of academic departments, scholarly journals, conferences, and funder portfolios.

See Also

Family observes a separate class room desk
J.R. Bee for Education Week
Families & the Community Opinion Three Urgent Questions the Pandemic Raises for Researchers
Michael McShane, January 15, 2021
4 min read

I don’t know why that is. Maybe it gets crowded out by the urgency of evaluating policies or classroom practices or maybe it’s just that there aren’t many senior researchers in the field to train junior researchers. Maybe, too, researchers tend to shy away from issues that feel overtly political.
Recently, I’ve waded into a few highly charged and partisan issues. That includes issues where the subject itself is political, like the politics of school reopening decisions. It also includes issues that aren’t about politics but have become politicized, like racial disparities in student discipline.

How can we, as researchers, inform debates about highly charged issues without becoming partisans ourselves? I struggle with that question myself. I have opinions about the issues I study and worry about the interplay between those opinions and my work.

How can we, as researchers, inform debates about highly charged issues without becoming partisans ourselves?

I do have a few guiding principles, though, that I try to keep in mind:

1. Recognize it isn’t inherently partisan to research many of the politicized issues in education. Take, for example, recent studies of how in-person schooling affected COVID-19 transmission. School reopening debates are about as politically charged as issues in education get, but a question about virus transmission lends itself to analysis that can inform debate without demanding that researchers take a side. Studies of topics such as mayoral control, school admissions priorities, and school board representation have illuminated messy political issues without drawing researchers into political battles they don’t want to fight.

2. Distinguish when you’re serving as an analyst from when you’re serving as an advocate. Each plays a different role with different responsibilities even if most researchers occupy these roles simultaneously. For me, the line runs between when I’m thinking about the ends, or goals, of education and when I’m thinking about the means to achieving those ends. How we see the goals of education reflects our principles and tends to have a partisan flavor (e.g., promoting equitable opportunities or individual liberty). I think it’s fine to advocate those ends, partly by looking for policies and practices that get us there. What isn’t fine is being so wedded to certain means of achieving those ends—like specific reforms, policies, or practices—that we are unwilling or unable to analyze them without personal bias. That undermines both our credibility and our ability to solve problems.
3. Be aware of how our political speech affects how people will read our analysis. Intentionally or not, many of us leave a clear impression of our political views on social media. Someone who criticizes or defends teachers’ unions on Twitter all day will have a hard time convincing anyone that a new study of how unions affect student outcomes is anything more than partisan fodder.

See Also

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

4. Have a realistic understanding of how most people consume research, especially when it’s about a politically charged subject. Hardly anyone reads a full research paper or book chapter. In fact, depressingly few people get to the end of a blog post. Many want a one-sentence finding and, if possible, a figure that distills those findings in an image. If there’s critically important nuance, it needs to find its way into that sentence or figure (or, at minimum, an accompanying policy report explaining the findings). That’s especially true of research on touchy subjects, which tends to have different consumers, including more idealogues looking for ammunition.

The education research community often talks optimistically about the intersection of research, policy, and practice. The truth, though, is that the reality of evidence-informed policymaking seldom lives up to its promise. The reason is often politics. Politics sets boundaries on what’s possible and steers decisionmaking in ways that may or may not be desirable. It is essential that we don’t shy away from rigorously studying these dynamics, however fraught.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Yes, You Can Study Politics Without Being a Partisan Hack

Events

Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Arizona School Data Analyst - (AZVA)
Arizona, United States
K12 Inc.
Software Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
Proposal Writer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
CCLC Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Read Next

States Research Identifies 18th Century School for Black Children
Virginia organizations are teaming up to preserve an 18th-Century school dedicated to the education of enslaved and free Black children.
1 min read
Policy & Politics Colorado Families Ask for Statewide School Cannabis Access
Colorado families pleaded with state lawmakers on Wednesday to pass a bill to expand cannabis-based medicine at school.
2 min read
Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif on Aug. 15, 2019.
Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif on Aug. 15, 2019.
Richard Vogel/AP
Federal Biden Legal Team Steps Back From Trump Stance on Transgender Female Sports Participation
The Education Department's office for civil rights pulls a letter that said Connecticut's transgender-inclusive policy violates Title IX.
4 min read
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in the Connecticut girls Class S indoor track meet at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn on Feb. 7, 2019. Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports. Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in legal battles that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in an event in New Haven, Conn. The two transgender athletes are at the center of a legal fight in Connecticut over the participation of transgender female athletes in girls' or women's sports.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP
Education Funding Concern About Unspent COVID-19 School Aid Continues as Congress Moves Toward More Relief
A congressional analysis has spurred discontent about how fast money will be spent, but some warn against over-simplifying the situation.
5 min read
Thermometers, gloves, and cleaning swabs sit on a table at the entrance to the Frederickson KinderCare daycare center, in Tacoma, Wash on May 27, 2020.
Thermometers, gloves, and cleaning swabs sit on a table at the entrance to the Frederickson KinderCare daycare center, in Tacoma, Wash on May 27, 2020. As a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, workers and children have their temperatures checked every day before they enter the building.
Ted S. Warren/AP