Of Educational Research and Other Glacial Activities

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Gerald Bracey Fellow at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University

Twenty-three years ago, I began a monthly column, "Research," for the educational monthly, Phi Delta Kappan. It translates policy- and practice-relevant research into English. Most Kappan subscribers are teachers, administrators and policy makers some of whom are as likely to think "hierarchical linear modeling" is about toy airplanes as about the data analysis. The editors felt a bridge was needed.

Yesterday, I attended a conference honchoed by Frederick Hess and sponsored by his employer, the American Enterprise Institute, The Politics of Knowledge: Why Research Does (or Does Not) Influence Education Policy. Progress in 23 years? Hard to tell, but no one in attendance that I approached knew about a somewhat similar conference held at the University of Virginia in 1989 or about a related RAND "Change Agent" study from 1979, updated in 1989. In the positions of many speakers, the conference appeared to reflect the two dominant mindsets Americans maintain about the past: "History is bunk" (Henry Ford), and "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (George Santayana).

Speakers repeatedly lamented the relative impotence of educational research to move policy: "research can inform, but not decide;" "the exact science of ideological politics always trumps the inexact science of research."

Several presenters observed that the reward structure of universities is hostile to high quality research that might affect policy or practice: "useable research is probably not tenurable research." Universities knight researchers with tenure largely contingent on their ability to place their studies in flagship journals, not on the impact of their research on educational policy or practice.

Others noted that the new information technologies have increased the pressure to get the research out NOW, lest you get scooped. Previously, researchers felt little time pressure and a study might take two years to work its way through both internal peer review and external review at a professional journal (the summary of the 1989 conference did not appear until 1992). This acceleration has eroded quality control. As has the desire to make the research widely known: "what drives publicity is inimical to quality."

Indeed. That very day, May 21, an op-ed in the Washington Post touted a study of parental satisfaction with tax-payer-supported vouchers in DC. It goaded Democrats, who now control both houses, to fund this program in the absence of any data that it actually improves achievement (virtually all research on vouchers to date has failed to detect that). The press release for the study is dated May 16. I'm not sure when "research" studies started to generate press releases from PR departments. This one quotes one of the researchers stating that the study provides "unprecedented insight." I may throw up.

The study also appeared, no doubt, in the absence of any peer review. The study comes from Jay P. Greene and his Christian fundamentalist endowed department of education reform at the University of Arkansas teamed up with a group at Georgetown University (Catholic organizations have been increasingly vocal in support of vouchers in recent years and George W. Bush has shamelessly courted the Catholic vote using vouchers as enticements) . Greene is on record as saying he doesn't care about peer review and just wants to get his findings to policy makers quickly. Some characterize the work from his outfit as pseudo-research. (Some of his department's funding is also Wal-Mart money and, before his death in a plane crash, John Walton was the most avid voucher advocate in the country so you can imagine what the odds are against finding anything negative about vouchers. So...back to the exact science of ideological politics).

The media's role as mediators of a link/barrier between research and policy hovered at the edge of the conference -- none of the 23 presenters-discussants were reporters or editors (none were teachers, either, although a few had been). Anyone interested in my take on that role can find it in "Getting the Word Out," in The Sage Handbook for Research in Education, Sage Publications, 2006. The chapter might be of interest if only for the comments of three reporters, Juan Williams (PBS, Washington Post then), Bill Celis (New York Times), and Jay Mathews (Washington Post), and for a summary statement from former Spencer Foundation President, Tom James.

Speakers often contrasted media treatment of education research with that of health research. Educational research articles often have a he-says-she-says tenor whereas reports on health findings sound more definitive, and are, therefore, more influential on policy making. Indeed, today's Washington Post and New York Times feature stories on the finding that the diabetes drug Avandia increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks. No one doubts the result (the company seems to have contradictory positions on it), but voice anger only because it wasn't made public earlier.

There were a few optimistic notes sounded over the day, but the general pervading feeling was "so long as teachers are bashed and education is seen as a common sense activity that anyone can do, educational research will lose out." I wonder where we'll be 23 years from now.