Education researchers can play an important role in ed. policy and in providing advice to educators.
To increase the odds of that advice being helpful to us teachers, here are some suggestions to them from an experienced colleague:
Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education. He is writing his second book, aimed at parents, critiquing bad ideas in education policy and pointing the way toward more productive forms of parent engagement in state and local policymaking:
One of the reasons I enjoy being an educational researcher so much is because it really is an incredibly applied field. Yes, there are important theories to be tested and there is a place for more conceptual or “basic” research. But if you are someone who cares about real-world impact, there are few fields where you can achieve that as concretely as you can in education. As someone who reads application essays for graduate school, this feature—the ability to affect education at a higher level than the individual classroom—is one of the main drivers of folks who choose to do education research.
And yet, once prospective researchers get to the academy, many of them end up doing work that, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t really achieve much impact. Some of this is simply about the incentives of academia, but some of it is also about choices that researchers make in the research they do or the way they talk about their work.
I think most in the field would agree that there is a spectrum in the education academy from public-facing to researcher-facing, and that I am pretty far toward the public-facing end. I think about my work and my identity as a scholar a lot and I make lots of choices—some of them conscious, some not—about how to position myself and my work to achieve impact. I recently wrote a Twitter thread about these issues, and Larry saw it and asked if I’d turn it into a blog. So here is my attempt to distill a few (noncomprehensive) thoughts about how scholars can achieve more public impact, if that’s something they want to do.
- Have a message, stick to it. The reality of the universe is that most people don’t listen. The consequence of this is that if you want people to hear your message, you have to say things over and over again. The particulars of your message may of course change over time, but it’s good to have a few core messages that drive your work forward and that you emphasize in your communication. For me, two messages that I return to a lot these days are “Teachers’ jobs are too hard, and we keep making them harder” and “There are 13,000 school districts in the U.S.” I think many policy problems in education are tied to these two points (certainly they play a prominent role in my book, Beyond Standards). I also think people start to pick up your framing if it resonates with them—certainly I hear more people talking about 13,000 districts than I used to.
- Be more prescriptive. Academics in general are loath to offer specific recommendations about what policymakers and practitioners should do. Too many of us apparently think that it’s the job of the reader to discern the implications of work. This is unfortunately a recipe for your work not to matter, because if you don’t offer specific, actionable guidance, someone else (probably someone less informed than you) will do it. This means not only that you should offer concrete guidance when you’re speaking to nonresearch audiences, but you should also use language that is direct and clear (watch the jargon!).
- Contextualize your work but not too much. Closely related to #2 is that researchers tend to want to nuance and contextualize their work to an excessive degree. And, of course, it’s true that every child is different and every school is different, so no one intervention is going to work in every context. But the reality is that research is never going to be sufficiently contextualized for every individual setting and what works “on average” is, in most cases, going to work in individual settings, too. Nothing works 100 percent of the time—not in education and not in medicine—but something that is effective on average is good, and we should do more of it.
- Write for the people you want to reach. One of my earliest memories as a professor was attending a workshop in D.C. for early-career education researchers focused on impact. The main memory I have of that meeting was someone saying “policymakers don’t read journal articles.” This is in some sense obvious—I don’t even think many academics really read journal articles, but policymakers clearly don’t have the time or inclination—but it’s also something I never learned in graduate school. The reality is that if you want to influence policy or practice, you have to do a substantial amount of communication aimed at nonacademic audiences. And this doesn’t mean a 15-page white paper. It means 700-word commentaries, podcasts that reach practitioners, and interviews with any journalist who wants to talk to you.
- Stop ignoring political realities. I have been fortunate to study a range of highly relevant policy issues over the years, from standards to testing to COVID. Americans have views about many of these issues, and those views matter. You can’t simply will away people’s views or force reforms upon them. And this means that you have to understand people’s views in order to influence reform. Half the voters out there vote primarily for Republicans. I do not, nor do my friends or colleagues. But I have to be able to understand what Republicans think if I want my work to play in places where Republicans have power. Of course, the same goes the other way, but in the education academy, it is almost always extremely liberal folks trying to get their ideas implemented in more conservative places.
Your mileage may vary on any of these ideas, but I have found them to be really helpful to me over the years as I’ve thought about how to do work that matters.
Today’s question-of-the-week is:
What are important points for ed. researchers to remember?
Thanks to Morgan for contributing his thoughts.
You might also be interested in these previous posts offering advice to education researchers:
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
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