From Academic Research to National Education Policy

July 25, 2016

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

At a time when opinions on education policy are often sharply divided, how do legislators and the public move past rhetoric to craft effective initiatives? Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley, examined the belief systems that shape educational policy‐making during her time in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation. Using the results of a multi-method qualitative study, she investigated how student success is framed in public discourse by the mainstream media and how policymakers use research to shape policies designed to enhance student and school success. Below, Carter discusses some of her ongoing research in an interview with the foundation:

Q. Part of your current research investigates the role that the media plays in shaping both policymakers' and the public's conceptions of student success. You outlined several “theories of action” that guide how journalists and policymakers tend to discuss academic achievement. What are the theories of action that commonly surface in mainstream publications, and which have arisen as the dominant frameworks for talking about schools and education?

Carter: Our research team has identified four main theories of action. The first theory of action, which is a macro theory, is the economistic theory. This theory of action is based on the idea that education’s purpose is to create strong human capital in the United States so that the U.S. can remain competitive in the global economy. The public was exposed to this narrative more in the mid- to late-20th century, and you still hear about it in the media, especially surrounding the anxiety over American students’ test scores compared to students in other nations.  Here, the idea is that we have to have great inputs into students’ education to enhance the productivity and innovation of the United States.

Then we have the contextual theory of action, which posits that educational outcomes are largely shaped by the environments in which children and youth are embedded. That is, social factors like poverty, neighborhood and family context, and peer group context deeply influence individual behavior and determine educational outcomes. According to the contextual theory of action, while schools themselves can provide some compensatory measures to address social inequalities, in order to boost educational outcomes, we ultimately need policies that focus outright on things like poverty, unemployment, wealth inequality, and so on.

The most prevalent theory of action, both in the mainstream media and among policymakers, has been the organizational theory, which looks inward at how schools are organized and operated as the main driver of students’ academic achievement. According to this theory of action, schools really do have a compensatory impact on student’s lives. Over the last few years, the main focus under this theory of action has been on teacher quality. The idea is that structural conditions don’t necessarily play as determinative a role in how well kids can perform.  Rather, the logic that undergirds this theory of action is that if students have good or highly-quality teachers, no matter what their social backgrounds are, they can succeed academically.

Finally, our research team has now outlined another theory of action, which we hadn’t previously hypothesized and that emerged from our exploration of media coverage on determinants of student success. We’re calling this the social-psychological theory of action, as it was influenced by popular social psychologists and focuses on factors that are internal to the individual student, such as traits like “grit” and “mindset.”

Q. Policymakers rely on a number of sources, including the mainstream media and academic research, to inform their decision-making. What kinds of criteria do those in the education policy world-including advocacy groups, Congress members, and administration staffers-use to sort through the research available to them?

To determine how lawmakers tend to interact with current research on education, we interviewed an elite sample of nearly 40 people in the federal policymaking world. Some either worked or had worked in the White House and Department of Education; some worked within congressional offices; and others were major lobbyists who had worked in government prior but had moved into advocacy groups or think tanks. What we found is that all of these groups relied a great deal on the media for information, particularly on the most easily digestible sources, like Education Week, Education Next, and other similar publications. Personnel in the White House and Congress were furthermore likely to consult the Congressional Research Service or the work of think tanks that have research units, because that research is tailored specifically to policymakers.

In our interviews, we learned that policymakers prioritize rigor and strong research methodology; but they also said that they have to make decisions very expeditiously. Their perception is that they can’t wait interminably for researchers to prove causality on every educational outcome of interest.  This characterizes a major line of demarcation, or boundary, in the thinking and practices of some policymakers and researchers.  Ease of reading was another important factor for legislators in deciding which research to consult. And this is something that academics have to contend with: How do we write in ways that are accessible for multiple audiences? Legislators require information quickly—they don’t have the time to go through all of the academic studies published in journals that are out there. They need executive summaries; they need shorter digestible explanations of concepts, interventions, findings, and implications.

Q. At RSF we often ask scholars to highlight the policy implications of their work. But your research shows that just because a study exists doesn't necessarily mean it will end up in the hands of legislators. How might social scientists better present important, policy-relevant research to lawmakers, the media, and the general public?

We learned from our policymaking interviewees that the academic researchers who are listened to the most tend to be the ones who are persistent about meeting with policymakers and presenting their research to the public. This can sometimes include writing for mainstream audiences through blogging or op-eds, but like academic research, there are a lot of op-eds out there, and it’s easy to get lost in a sea of rhetoric. So in terms of really making an impact, I think the researchers who get established as doing very high-quality work are the ones who are going to be in the best position.

Research centers also serve as important intermediaries between scholars and policymakers. Many have become prime go-to places for congressional staff, for example, as opposed to going directly to academics producing social science research.  Academic researchers who are professors and instructors can also likely make an impact by considering how we train and transmit research ideas to students, who potentially go on to work in these research think tanks and centers.  For example, there are a number of staffers and interns in congressional and state legislative offices who are just out of either college or masters programs, who may have been in our classrooms, and who go on to help research for and write major legislation. We should ask ourselves how we’re training these students to engage with and interpret educational research in order to better shape ongoing policy debates.

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