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Are Researchers and Policymakers Oil and Water?

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Last month I wrote a blog post about my lack of confidence in educational research, some of which strikes me as politicized. My basic point was that in some cases you could read only an author or think tank's name and guess a study's conclusions with a high degree of accuracy.

As you might imagine, the post created a stir. I had some stimulating conversations with Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor and director of the National Education Policy Center, which I mentioned in my post. Our discussions were (to use diplomats' language) frank and open and at their conclusion we decided this was an interesting enough topic to merit a broader conversation.

On Monday, we convened a group of nine people for a two-hour discussion about research, policy, politics and the media. We agreed that the conversation would be off the record, so I can't say who attended. Let's just say it was an interesting mix of academics and policy folks.

We did not solve the research and policy worlds' problems. In fact, if anything, I left the conversation feeling more downcast than encouraged. But I came away with a better understanding of researchers' perspectives, and why it is so difficult for advocates and policymakers to use research well.

Here are my undoubtedly over-simplified interpretations of some of the main points that emerged:

  • Research by its nature is reflective and not oriented toward action. As one participant put it, good research consists of paying attention to what happened in the past, with the aim of avoiding the mistakes of the past. "Research more often describes the problem than effectively prescribes the solution."

  • From a researcher perspective, policy is "often (recklessly) ahead of what we know."

  • From a policy perspective, research often isn't timely enough to have an impact on the policy debates of the day. "It takes decades for consensus to form around research findings, and for real knowledge to emerge."

  • While most researchers would not classify themselves as political advocates, "our values guide the questions we ask."

  • Some researchers, though, have crossed the line and have taken on more of an activist role. "Their research is pretty predictable," one participant said.

  • Most policymakers, though, "lead with their values, not with research findings."

From the perspective of some of the academic researchers in the room, the combination of policymakers, advocacy groups and media outlets, all uncomfortable with nuance and ambiguity, form a toxic brew. While the best research lives in the gray areas, subtlety and nuance are the enemies of soundbites and ideologically-driven debates and policy fights.

Policymakers and advocates want definitive conclusions. Researchers shy away from yes and no answers. On controversial legislation like Senate Bill 10-191, the teacher effectiveness law, researchers' innate "caution is seen as trying to undo the intent of the legislation," one participant said.

Good academic research is by its nature reflective and deliberate. Hence the "ivory tower." Is it possible to bring research into harmony with a political and media culture that runs on adrenaline, competition and ideology?

It's hard to see how. One researcher at the gathering suggested that at more tranquil times on the political calendar -- summer in a non-election year, perhaps -- someone convene a group of researchers and policymakers to discuss in depth and detail the issues likely to emerge as hot-button legislative issues in the coming year.

Ultimately, we will never have a system that approaches the ideal. Policymakers will see some researchers as timid wafflers. The researchers will view those policymakers as impulsive and shallow in their policymaking.

However, at least one solution was proposed in passing that everyone seemed to like: Have the state legislature meet only every second or third year. That would allow time for deliberation and keep laws lacking a research basis from being passed just to justify the legislators' existence.

Now there's an idea worth pursuing.