When Research Matters

Book Review
When research matters: How scholarship influences education policy.
Frederick M. Hess, editor.
Harvard Education Press, 2008. 312 pp.

The whole point of education research is to pin down “what works” in education, and then to scale it up. Right? Well, maybe.

Frederick (Rick) Hess offers a new collection of essays that address that question from many perspectives. Hess directs education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and he co-hosts The Education Gadfly Show.

He offers this collection of essays “with the conviction that researchers, public officials, educators, journalists, and advocates would all benefit from a clearer and deeper understanding of the complex relationship between research and policymaking.”

The book’s first two chapters consider the history of the federal role in education policy and the evolving nature of educational policy research. The next three chapters address the role of research in debates over reading, NCLB, and “out-of-field” teaching.

The following section considers how research affects policy by shaping public opinion, influencing judicial decisions, and affecting the decisions of district and school leaders. The fourth section offers broader insights into the incentives that help explain the behavior of researchers and policymakers.

Some of the highlights:
Paul Manna and Michael Petrilli write that research can add substantive value to policymaking, for example influencing legislative debates that helped develop NCLB. However, members of Congress and their staff use research selectively and tend to gravitate toward findings that supported their own ideological views.

James Kim describes the problem time lag. “Research often takes several decades to bear fruit, but decision makers cannot wait for decades to help struggling readers. Consequently, the demands facing a state education official, superintendent, or teacher create pressures for immediate action and quick solutions. Research that is unavailable for decades cannot inform decision making today.”

William G. Howell describes how research is, or is not, understood by average citizens, who “evaluate academic research on the basis of information found within [a] news story … typically, the identity of the individual or institution that produced the report, a core finding or two, and a handful of quotes from experts providing commentary. Rarely more, and often less.” At the same time, “some studies can shape popular views about the state of public education in America. Scholarship can penetrate the public conscience—and for at least some citizens, the consequences can be dramatic.”

Joshua Dunn and Martin West examine how education research has influenced judicial decisions in desegregation and school finance cases. However, like Congressional staff, the Court uses social science inconsistently. “The Court, and even individual justices, often cite research-based evidence when it supports their position, and disparage or ignore it when it does not.”

Lance Fusarelli writes about the challenge of making research relevant to the day-to-day lives of educators. From the perspective of many school leaders, he writes, “the inconclusive nature of some education research, particularly the existence of conflicting studies, suggests significant disagreement about what works best, where, and under what conditions. This makes it problematic for superintendents and principals to learn and leads to confusion and mistrust among educators.”

Dan Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer lay out a supply-and-demand framework to portray the incentives motivating individuals and organizations in the education research business. They suggest that “the market for education research may not function efficiently, in the sense that not enough of the research that is needed gets done, and too much of what is not needed is produced. Incentives are misaligned. They list steps that might be taken “to increase the production of high-quality, policy-relevant education research.”

Kenneth Wong observes the different governing principles and incentives that motivate the research community and electoral-oriented policy institutions. “Researchers are more effective when they team up to provide comprehensive research analysis in response to the needs or policymakers. The Koret Task Force was invited by state policymakers in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana to provide statewide reform recommendations.”

In a concluding chapter, Hess says we shouldn’t be surprised by the cultural gaps that separate researchers, policymakers, and journalists. They’re just doing what existing professional incentives encourage them to do.

Research has a vital role to play in democratic policy debate, he says. “That role is not to dictate outcomes or to presume that public officials should be the handmaidens of researchers, but to ensure that public decision making is informed by all the facts, insights, and analyses that the tools of science can provide.”

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2 Responses to When Research Matters

  1. I was about to say that the only reason I ever delved into research was to convince some decision maker that what I knew in my gut and experience was, in fact, worth considering as an act of policy. However, I think the same effectiveness would happen if competent and visionary people were given the decision making reins and were allowed the freedom to tinker.

  2. paul says:

    Michael, thanks for the comment. I like what you’re doing with your blogs. Fortunately there are some visionary people who are tinkering, and some who are conducting rigorous research into improving teaching and learning. Looks like you’re one of them.

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