Teaching Opinion

How Can We Democratize Evidence in Education?

By Urban Education Contributor — December 03, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by Ilene Berman, Senior Associate, Evidence-Based Practice Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation (@AECFNews), Steve Fleischman (@swfleischman), Chief Executive Officer of Education Northwest (@educationnw), Ben Kirshner, Associate Professor of Education at University of Colorado at Boulder (@cueducation), and Esther Quintero (@EstherQuinCo), Senior Fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute (@shankerinst).

Today’s post provides perspectives on the call for democratization of evidence outlined in last week’s post: Democratizing Evidence in Education and Why it Matters.

In last week’s blog post, we welcomed readers into a dialogue on what it would mean to democratize evidence in education. In this post, we consider how different stakeholders can shift their work as part of the movement to democratize evidence. Every stakeholder has a critical role to play. Teachers, administrators, researchers, philanthropies, policymakers, parents, and students can mobilize support within their communities to promote the four guiding principles through tangible action. Below, representatives of the research, educator, and philanthropy working groups share their calls to action.

A Call to Action to the Research Community

As researchers, we are committed to ending the aristocracy of evidence, in which we get to decide which studies should be conducted, how they should be carried out and reported, and how they should be used to mobilize action that improves society. Ending this aristocracy will take more than making sure we use big enough fonts in our presentations, or writing shorter summaries in plain language, or even providing more action-oriented conclusions. Democratizing evidence will take a fundamental shift in the relationship between researchers and the researched. It means expanding who are recognized as producers of knowledge and the kinds of roles people play in the research process, particularly those from historically marginalized communities.

There are many models for doing this, ranging from participatory action research with young people, to research-practice partnerships with school leaders, to design-based research with classroom teachers. What these approaches share is the commitment to a democratic evidence system in which stakeholder voices are heard. This does not mean that deep knowledge of subject matter and methodology should be discounted. But this type of knowledge should be in conversation with the viewpoints and interests of stakeholders, whose participation can transform the public impact of research.

To meet this vision, we must act in more democratic ways, where power to shape research efforts is held widely, and those who have been traditionally disenfranchised from the research help shape its direction.

A Call to Action to the Educator Community

When the words “research,” “evidence,” or “data” come up in education discussions, many educators get wary. In some cases, their experiences with research and researchers have been less than ideal. Educators have felt voiceless and powerless with regards to what questions are asked and how they are answered, dismayed by the disconnect between their needs and the knowledge researchers produce, and even threatened by academic findings that have been misinterpreted in policy.

While educators and communities are the commoners of the old evidence system, there are reasons for optimism and signs that the tide is finally turning. More educators are eager to step up and expand their professional roles and to join like-minded academics and funders in the pursuit of a more democratic system for generating and using education evidence.

To this end, leaders aspire to nurture a culture of evidence use in their schools and districts, reward teacher-initiated research, and support teacher-researcher collaborations. As for teachers, they aspire to incorporate research as a tool of their professional learning, to design and conduct their own investigations, and to work with academic researchers to co-produce the body of knowledge that underpins the teaching profession.

A Call to Action to the Philanthropic Community

By supporting innovations in research and data production and use, incentivizing inclusive engagement in evidence building ,and facilitating conversations that expand the traditional definition of “evidence,” foundations are well-positioned to help answer the call to democratize evidence. Funders are investing in research-practice partnerships—collaborations between educators and researchers designed to investigate solutions for improving school district outcomes—to generate responsive and actionable research relevant to those working with young people every day. Along with government funders, private foundations support partnerships across the country and a national network to promote best partnership practices and information sharing. These partners have worked together to identify and tackle questions such as how attendance affects student achievement and how a school district can help 9th graders on the path to high school graduation.

By supporting ongoing collaborations such as these partnerships, funders position multiple stakeholders to learn together and create more effective approaches for students. Funders also recognize that more equitable, representative, and meaningful engagement in evidence building—from start to finish and in terms of who is funding and funded—helps to address real and pressing needs and multiple perspectives. Grant opportunities can encourage diverse engagement in the process. In addition to funding collaboration, philanthropy can shine a spotlight on issues important to youth leaders and community members. While philanthropy can make valuable contributions to this critical conversation, lasting change will require humility, acknowledgement of power dynamics, and a willingness to engage with new people and ideas.

Future Work

These ideas are only the beginning, and we hope that other stakeholder groups who have a vested interest in and responsibility for decisionmaking in education will develop additional strategies that are meaningful for them.

We welcome you to join the democratization movement by signing onto the Statement of Principles and to also share your comments and input via the website.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.