Using Research to Drive Policy and Practice

Cross posted from here.

I’m excited to be joining the Advisory Board of Evidence Based Education, and I’m looking forward to contributing what I can to their important mission. In this post, I thought I’d briefly introduce myself and my research and talk about my philosophy for using research to affect policy and practice.

My research focuses on the design, implementation and effects of standards, assessment and accountability policies. Over my last seven years as an Assistant (now Associate) Professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, I have studied a number of issues in these areas, including:

  • The alignment of state assessments of student achievement with content standards;
  • The design of states’ school accountability systems;
  • The instructional responses of teachers to state standards and assessments; and
  • The alignment and impacts of elementary mathematics textbooks.

My current work continues in this vein, studying the implementation of new “college- and career-ready” standards and the adoption, use and effects of curriculum materials in the core academic subjects.

As is clear from the above links, I have of course published my research in the typical academic journals—this kind of publication is the coin of the realm for academics at research-focused institutions. And while I also find great intrinsic value in publishing in these venues, I know that I will not be fully satisfied if my work exists solely for the eyes of other academics.

When I joined an education policy PhD program in 2006, one of the key drivers of my decision was that I wanted to do work that was relevant to policy (at the very least—impact was an even more ideal goal). Unfortunately, while my PhD programs at Vanderbilt and Penn prepared me well for the rigors of academia, they did not equip me with the tools to drive policy or practice through my research. Those skills have developed over time, through trial and error with and advice from colleagues. Here are a few lessons I have learned that may be of use to others thinking of working to ensure that their research is brought to bear on policy and practice.

First, it goes without saying that research will not be useful to policymakers or practitioners if it is not on topics that are of interest to them. This means researchers should, at a minimum, conduct research on current policies (this means timeliness is paramount). Even better would be selecting research topics (or even conducting research) together with policymakers or practitioners. If the topics come from the eventual users, they are much more likely to use the results.

Second, even the best-designed research will not affect policy or practice if it is only published in peer-reviewed journals. Early in my academic career, I attended a networking and mentoring workshop with panels of leaders from DC. I had just come off publishing an article on an extremely new and relevant federal policy in a top education journal. The paper was short (5,000 words) and accessible, I thought, so surely it would be picked up and used by congressional staff or folks at the Department of Education. The peals of laughter from the panelists when I proposed that my work might matter in its current form certainly disabused me of the idea that the research-to-policy pipeline is an easy one.

Equipped with this knowledge, I began specifically writing and publishing in outlets that I thought would be more likely to reach the eyes of those in power. These include publishing articles in practitioner-oriented journals and magazines, briefs published for state and federal audiences, and even blog posts on personal and organization websites. Out of everything I’ve written, I think the piece that might have had the greatest impact is an open letter I wrote on my personal blog about the design of accountability systems under the new federal education law. This kind of writing is very different from the peer-reviewed kind, and specific training is needed—hopefully doctoral programs will begin to offer this kind of training (and universities will begin to reward this kind of engagement).

Third, networks are absolutely essential for research to be taken up. The best research, supported by the best nonacademic writing (blogs, briefs, etc.), will not matter if no one sees it. Getting your ideas in front of people requires the building of networks, and again this is something that must be done consciously. Networks can certainly be built through social media, and they can also be built by presenting research at policy and practice conferences, through media engagement, and through work with organizations like Evidence Based Education.

These are just a few of the ideas I have accumulated over time in my goal to bring my research to bear on current issues in policy and practice. I hope that my work with Evidence Based Education will allow me to contribute to their efforts in this area as well. Through our collaboration, I think we can continue to improve the production and use of quality evidence in education.


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