When Research Matters: How Scholarship Influences Education Policy

Edited by Frederick M. Hess
Harvard Education Press
February 2008

Frederick M. Hess's latest collection is what you might call an All-Bran book: it doesn't deliver the sugar-frosted goodness of, say, his 2006 volume Education Entrepreneurship, but if you just open up and spoon it down, When Research Matters will prove darn good for you. The book asks several important but neglected questions about how education research translates into policy. Or doesn't. To show the potential hazards of this process, Hess recalls in his introduction the famous Project STAR experiment, which found that class-size affects academic outcomes in a few, special circumstances--but has resulted in billions of dollars wasted on bulky class-size reduction programs that ignore the subtleties and caveats of the original research. The essays that follow examine, for example, the history of research influencing public policy, No Child Left Behind's push for "scientifically based research" (co-written by Fordham's own Michael Petrilli), research and the reading wars, research and the courts, and the incentives that drive education research. Most authors are skeptical about the current state of education research. Dan Goldhaber and Dominic J. Brewer point out, for instance, how "poor studies with results that fit a popular ideological perspective or serve stakeholder interests often dominate," especially in a sphere where government monopolies prevail. And quality research, notes William G. Howell in his chapter on public opinion, often fails to resonate with biased policymakers and voters. To return to the title of the book, how can we make research matter? Hess recommends a few approaches, such as "encouraging the development of professional norms about what constitutes appropriate and constructive involvement in public debate, steering more funding toward research that is vetted by knowledgeable researchers, and investing more heavily in large public datasets." Mmm--branny. Get your copy here.

Coby Loup is a Policy Analyst/Web Editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute