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Turning the Tables

Reflections on Education Research in the Era of Accountability

April 21, 2015

A challenge to education researchers everywhere: How is your work being used?

Last week, 15,000 tweed-clad attendees descended on Chicago for the annual American Education Research Association conference. They were guided by the twin mission of nearly every education school: to contribute to an ever-growing scientific body of knowledge and to make our teaching and learning systems better. In other words, education researchers came to share usable knowledge.

The breadth of intellectual production at the convening was overwhelming. At any given hour, there were 100 researchers at four different hotels presenting papers along the research-to-practice continuum. On the panel “What Vergara Hath Wrought,” HGSE Professor Susan Moore Johnson, alongside John Papay, Jack Schneider, and James Wyckoff, debated the role of research in the historic court decision last June and shared findings they believed should influence future decisions to help low-income students receive the best possible education. At the session “How People Learn,” panelists shed light on new research with the greatest potential to influence practice, particularly around cultural differences and similarities in learning.

Even as these sessions were unfolding, a storm was kicking up miles away, in the halls of the 114th Congress. Representative Lamar Smith and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology introduced a bill that would cut National Science Foundation funding to the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) in half. SBE funds 55 percent of university social science research, including education studies. The bill would also add an additional layer of complexity to the peer review process and, according to the Consortium of Social Science Associations, send the message that the social sciences are not worth funding.

Indeed, “wasteful research” has become a modern-day bogeyman. Senator Rand Paul, a Republican presidential hopeful, recently wrote in an op-ed that “the federal government has awarded taxpayer dollars toward research that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest.” As I followed news of the bill’s progress, I couldn’t help wondering why AERA attendees weren’t planning to march on Washington or at least gathering signatures for a better bill.

I attended a compelling and, as it turned out, timely session led by Columbia University’s Ken Prewitt, who described the vast changes sweeping across the social science research landscape. Researchers no longer have a monopoly over knowledge production, he said; others are packaging knowledge much more efficiently. “How long before the federal government contracts with Google to run the U.S. census?” Prewitt asked his audience. Scientific procedure and the power of peer review, trusted facets of the 20th century, no longer garner the same level of respect. Elected officials and funders are demanding researchers use performance metrics to demonstrate value, he said. Gone are the days of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”

At the end of the conference, I made my way to Cloud Gate, Chicago’s mirrored bean sculpture, famous for its reflective properties. I stared at myself against a distorted Chicago skyline. How ironic is it that researchers spend their careers measuring phenomena, but they cannot accurately reflect their own impact? Academics may point to publication citations or Rick Hess’ Edu-Scholar Rankings as indicators, but those metrics don’t quantify practitioner use; they measure recognition and repetition.

What should education researchers do in this new landscape of public accountability?

First, we need to make a much bigger effort to understand research utilization. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, Northwestern University, and the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University are already spearheading efforts to measure education leaders' use of research. We need more studies like these.

Second, we need to co-construct our research questions with education practitioners to ensure our findings are valuable. We do not have a supply-side problem as much as a real need to understand and generate demand for research consumption.

Finally, education practitioners and social scientists alike need to band together to help federal policymakers recognize the value of research in understanding and improving teaching and learning for generations to come.


About the Author

Photo of Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg is a director at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. She writes about the ways in which education data reaches beyond the numbers and into our lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mirigreenberg and @HarvardCEPR.
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