Researchers must learn to *sell* their ideas

Researchers cannot expect legislators, or their staff, to read a 40-page, single-spaced report, or to understand the methodology and all the nuances. In this morning’s AERA session on “Research to policy to practice,” Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy said the CEP ‘translates’ its research findings into the kind of language reporters use and that legislative aides can find clear and compelling. In revising research reports for legislators, CEP puts the study conclusions right up front, and tosses out all the jargon. The reward is that its reports are regularly cited by organization including the National Education Association and by the U.S. Department of Education.

Jennings said he understands that researchers are trained to think as scientists and to speak objectively. Researchers typically are reluctant to boil down their findings to simple statements or to assign causality. But that’s what gets attention in the policy-making world, like it or not. “And just remember that legislators will continue to make education policy, with or without the benefit of research,” he said. So not only is it important for researchers to synthesize and repackage what they know, they must sell it to legislators and to journalists. Everyone else works the press, and educators should as well.

jack jennings

Education research should, and can, have a much stronger impact on policy than it currently does, he argued.

“If you’re doing research in a parcitular state, make sure you know the names of the key legislative staff and the legislative research bureau. Get to know the governor’s educational policy aide. Arrange to give them fully disclosed briefing about your current research: ‘Here is where our research is now; here is where we are going with it.’ Ask them if you can come back in six or 12 months to give them another update.”

Based on what he had heard so far in the conference, Jennings said, the majority opinion among the 15,000 AERA members in attendance seems to be that the Adequate Yearly Progress construct needs to be revised, that the education system is not aligned, and that it’s not properly measured. If that is the case, then why has there been no big movement to tell Congress bluntly? He observed that, “You all make speeches and complain, and then go home.”

AERA seems to have no organizational-level movement to lobby for policies it agrees with, or would prefer, he suggested, because lobbying runs counter to the academic culture, which instead values things like peer review, professional journal publishing, and getting tenure.

“If the education research community does not agree with what is happening in the national political arena, you just can’t complain, and then go stand in the corner,” he said. “Education policies will be made, with or without your input, regardless.

Researchers could turn the tables on the legislators, he suggested: “OK, you want evidence-based decision making? Then show us the evidence base for the policies you make.” And if legislators don’t have convincing evidence for their policies, research should be ready to provide better alternatives.


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