Researcher, heal thyself: How to produce useful research for teachers and leaders

Christopher Weiss Harrison

Earlier this month, Mike Petrilli raised a time-honored question in education circles: Why is it so difficult for “evidence-based” educational strategies to permeate practice? It’s a question that holds substantial resonance in policy circles. Heck, it’s our raison d’être at the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP)! As all good blogs do, Mike’s work led me to my own musings about how we might expand the conversation he started.

He identified a number of key issues that contribute to the often tenuous relationship between the communities of research and practice. Many of these pertain to the dissemination and presentation of our accumulated knowledge about “what works” in education. Citing recent work by the NCRPP, for instance, he notes that relatively few district leaders are leaning on empirical work from sources like the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). He also (quite justifiably) points to the relative cacophony of research that surrounds nearly any given issue in the field, and our limited success in producing work that leaders can understand and use when seeking answers to pressing questions of practice.

That said, there are a few places where I would expand on the points that he raised.

First, it’s worth thinking about how we define research use in the first place. Substantial work in the field—ranging from Carol Weiss in the 1980s, to more recent work by some familiar faces around the NCRPP offices—challenges the idea that practitioners draw upon pieces of research directly as they work. Instead, evidence points to a “conceptual” model of use, where practitioners consume research and other types of information as they build a “working knowledge” of practice that guides their decisions. As such, research is informing practice on a daily basis—just in ways that are difficult for us to trace to particular studies.

That isn’t to say that the status quo is sufficient, however. There are ways to strengthen education research and tighten the bonds between researchers and practitioners. I’m a big believer in improvement!

As a research community, let’s reconsider why our work has limited impact. Rather than looking outward, as we often do, we ought to look inward. I’m reminded of an old proverb, Luke 4:23, which admonishes: “Physician, heal thyself!”

Instead of focusing on dissemination, for instance, we should ponder what it means to conduct research that is truly useful and meaningful for practitioners. As Mike pointed out (but dismisses a little too readily), a number of voices in the field have pressed for rethinking our practices. Advocates for design-based and continuous improvement models, for example, push for research that is firmly grounded in the contexts and problems that matter for practitioners. Similarly, proponents of partnership models argue for longer term, mutualistic, and collaborative relationships between researchers and practitioners. Based on my own experience, the latter find that these endeavors produce powerful results.

Education researchers and policymakers should also think carefully about their fixation on divining broadly generalizable findings about “what works.” Yes, providing strong evidence regarding which practices show promise in driving student outcomes is important. But, as Mike noted, our definition of what it means for something to “work” often lacks nuance. Knowing what’s effective, under what conditions, and for whom may be the better question.

Answering those questions requires us to incentivize and produce diverse research about practice. I disagree with Mike’s assertion that educators’ “ideology” acts as a barrier to evidence-based practice. Instead, I would argue that their demand for “warm and fuzzy” research alongside “hard-nosed quantitative analyses” reflects an important reality of their work. Case studies of implementation, for example, are a vital complement to experimental and correlational methods in helping us to understand “what works” in education. Knowing whether a policy works is important, but so is knowing know how and why it’s effective, particularly as educators work to implement and adapt it at scale.

If we’re serious about promoting research use, researchers need to take a long look in the mirror. We do ourselves and practitioners a disservice by limiting our discussion to infrastructure or the capacity of educators to consume our work. Instead, consider whether our research is actually meeting the needs of the communities we hope to serve in the first place.

Christopher Weiss Harrison is a postdoctoral fellow with the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice at Northwestern University.