Research and policymaking: Kissing cousins or long-lost relatives?

I had the good fortune of attending the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) conference last week. AEFP attracts some of the nation’s finest researchers along with a small smattering of policymakers and advocates. Cutting-edge research on topics ranging from parents and school choice, adequacy in school funding, and value-added accountability were presented, and the working papers are online and well worth perusing.

The conference was a veritable buffet of dialogue on education research and policy, and the following are the three main ideas I took away:

  • First, there is a growing stable of researchers who are willing to tackle challenging but pressing policy issues. A few of the more ambitious projects came from graduate-student researchers who are making valiant efforts to answer thorny and (perhaps) impossible research questions. Some of the interesting studies included preliminary work on a return-on-public-investment model for charter schools, whether “adequacy and equity” court cases have contributed to achievement gains, and whether value-added models of teacher effectiveness have “floor” and “ceiling” effects (i.e., bias VAM estimates of teachers with many low- or high-achieving students). It’s evident that the education-research community is moving in the right direction by making concerted efforts to answer questions that matter for sound policy and practice.  
  • Second, to cease testing and data collection would cripple promising research avenues. There is growing concern about testing and data collection among education policymakers and the public. The backlash is understandable. But make no mistake: if states backtrack on testing and collecting administrative data, high-quality research will grind to a halt or become prohibitively expensive. Since the early 2000s, Ohio has developed a longitudinal information system, which can now support high-quality and policy-relevant studies such as our student mobility work. Policymakers should not undo a state’s effort to collect information about school and student performance. However, there is still the need to balance research and evaluation needs with privacy by enforcing the legal restrictions that prevent state agencies from receiving personally identifiable information.
  • Third, researchers must demonstrate their own “value-add” and help policymakers in high-stakes decisions. Research for the sake of research (or to “get published”) should not be modus operandi in academia. Instead, research should be done to help people make good decisions. Isn’t that the fundamental idea of research? And researchers could do better to cut to the chase, when it comes to presenting their work and its relevance to policy. Of the presentations that I witnessed, nearly the entirety of them contained technical details about methodology and dense tables with regression output. Sometimes, a presenter would conclude with a slide that told us what this all meant. Even fewer presenters told us how the research informs our thinking about a policy—much less what policymakers should do. How about this: Why not present the conclusions and policy implications first (or at least a sneak preview), and then walk us through the research methods? Keep the mere mortals interested and please tell us how to interpret.

Research and policymaking should go hand-in-hand. Yet, far too often they’re more like long-lost relatives than kissing cousins. AEFP is leading the charge in linking research with policy—and we need more dialogue that cuts across the research and policymaking environments. 

More By Author

Related Articles