Research Group Seeks More Influence Over Policy, Practice

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 17, 2015 6 min read
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At the end of a keynote discussion on assessment at the National Academy of Education’s 50th anniversary meeting here—full of passionate arguments on how policymakers misuse test scores and the need for more formative assessment—John Q. Easton stood to ask what was immediately dubbed “the most depressing question of the day.”

“Many of the points that have been brought up today, we’ve been hearing for eight, 10, 12 years. ... We’ve talked about them for a long time but nobody pays any attention to us,” he lamented at the conference earlier this month. “Why do we have so little influence, so little ability to communicate with those practitioners and policymakers?”

The question—coming from a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences and a distinguished senior fellow at the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, one of the academy’s chief sponsors—cut to the heart of the organization’s current soul-searching over its place in the education policy landscape.

Providing Leadership

Many of the best and brightest in the education research community have long had lively arguments about policy and practice at the academy’s annual meetings. But 50 years after the NAE was first launched, members are pushing for it take a more active leadership role in the use of research in education policy and practice.

In some ways, the academy may be joining the political education debate late, as Senate and House members have at long last agreed on tentative federal guidelines for new accountability rules for schools.

Yet the changes may offer a critical opportunity for the academy to help guide how new legislation is translated into state and district practice. For example, Deputy Education Secretary John King, Jr. listened in on the academy’s discussion of assessment—as the soon-to-be U.S. Education Secretary, he is the first federal schools chief in 15 years to attend the academy’s conference. Though he did not give his thoughts on the panel’s recommendations, he said he was “happy to be here.”

“There has been a growing appetite for scholarly input into debates about education,” said Michael Feuer, the academy’s president and the education dean at George Washington University.

“I think our community has gotten smarter about this. We’re overcoming this notion that the scientific community can do the research, develop proper understanding, and all we have to do is unzip the minds and brains of the policy community and the teachers, pour in the knowledge that comes from research, and things will get better.”

From ‘Elite’ to Mentors

It’s not the first time the academy has had to reconsider its vision and broaden its reach.

According to the group’s 2015 history, Past as Prologue, the National Academy of Education was “dreamed up” by Harvard University education scholars Lawrence Cremin and Israel Scheffler over lunch in 1964, though J.B. Conant, a former Harvard president, and John W. Gardner, the president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York, formally launched it a year later.

The group initially was dedicated to big research ideas rather than “what works” practical studies in education, according to Ellen C. Lagemann, a Bard College research professor and NAE member since 1990. It focused on major research reviews, such as the 1978 tome Impact of Research on Education.

Into the 1980s, the academy was still self-contained enough that in 1985, incoming President Patricia Albjerg Graham recalled being given the group’s records in a single shoe box. Even then, she noted in Past as Prologue that the group’s funding was nearly gone because foundations and the public were “less interested in conferences or 679-page volumes on educational research [a reference to Impact] and more focused on issues of educational practice.”

Graham reached out to the Spencer Foundation that year to develop a fellowship for postdoctoral education researchers. Scholars studying “critical education areas” would receive funding for salary, travel, or other needs—up to $70,000 as of 2015—and would come to training and networking events with members of the academy.

“It really rescued the academy, not just in the finances, but more than that, in mission,” said Catherine Snow, the academy’s secretary-treasurer and a Harvard education professor. “It had a mission; it wasn’t just we are elite researchers who like to get together and confirm for each other how elite we are.”

Dick Anderson, a university scholar and psychology professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, agreed. Anderson was elected to the academy in 1979 and has helped select fellows in many years.

“The effort taken to understand what these young people are doing helps you keep abreast of the best new developments in the field,” he said. “The old-timers need professional development just as the young folks do. Wise doesn’t mean you know everything; we’ve always got something to learn.”

It also led to new researchers in the group; 16 former postdoctoral fellows have since become academy members themselves, including Feuer.

“It felt like an invitation to join a group of people who care a lot about the issues but come from very different intellectual traditions,” Feuer said.

While the NAE’s disciplines span from economics to psychology to biostatistics, it is still working to bring in more diversity. Of its 237 current members, fewer than 90 are women, and fewer than 50 are not white, not counting foreign associates.

Snow said the group is working to broaden both the membership and the fellowship programs. “We have really re-oriented and galvanized attention to diversity in recruitment for young, minority, and female [scholars],” Snow said.

One of those newcomers is Lalitha Vasudevan, a Spencer fellow and associate professor of technology and education at Teachers College of Columbia University. She is studying ways to collect data from portfolios and other non-test projects.

The academy’s work, she said, “reminds us that research is supposed to ask big questions that do good work in the world.”

Broadening the Conversation

Yet Feuer and Snow argue the group must also bring more educators and policymakers into discussions of how to make education research usable.

“It turns out that providing high-quality research is neither necessary nor sufficient to have research be used in policy and practice,” said Adam Gamoran, a member and the president of the William T. Grant Foundation. “We must move from focusing on what makes research useful to setting up the structures and relationships that result in research being used.”

Back in the late 1980s, the academy took part in cultural delegations between educators in the United States and the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional group of former Soviet Republics including Russia. At that time, Anderson called for a different kind of “glasnost” between the sometimes divided cultures of education research and practice. Instead of focusing on reports, which Anderson said are “written for other academics even though they were intended for a broader audience,” he argued members should discuss evidence for policies in person, at meetings of state officials and district leaders.

“We don’t have much interaction with school leaders; they are sort of different cultures and so we need to get up and go to meetings of school boards ... get yourself onto the program and let people know what you are worried about,” he said.

Jeffrey Henig, an education politics professor at Teachers College, agreed. Rather than searching for one “killer study” to answer hot questions in education, he argued, the academy should help practitioners understand how to better incorporate new knowledge as it comes.

Making research more relevant to educators and policymakers is necessary not just for the academy, but for education research as a field to survive, said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford education professor and an academy member since 1995.

“We were told once the rigor was in place, the funding would follow, and we’re still waiting for that to happen,” Hakuta said at the meeting. “Somehow Congress doesn’t respond favorably when the only people advocating for education research were the researchers.”

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