Rebecca G. Kaplan, PhD
This post is adapted from the article, “Going on a statewide listening tour: Involving education leaders in the process of research to enhance the practical value of qualitative research,” by Rebecca G. Kaplan, Robbin Riedy, Katie Van Horne, & William R. Penuel, which appeared in Evidence & Policy in March 2018.
Many policymakers and researchers wonder: How can we enhance the practical value of research findings? In our research-practice partnership (RPP) with university-based researchers and state science leaders, we tried to answer this question.
Often we think of producers and consumers of research as different groups; in this partnership, state science leaders were both. Together, researchers and education leaders took part in a participatory research process of planning, conducting, and developing findings from focus groups that involved multiple stakeholders and focused on science education. We found that this process not only resulted in immediately useful findings for education leaders, but it also shifted leaders’ perceptions of the value of the insights that qualitative data can provide for their work.
In this post, I’ll discuss why this study was promising for our field. First, I’ll touch on the issue of how research does not impact practice as often or as powerfully as researchers and policymakers would like. Next, I’ll discuss ways in which research is used by practitioners. I’ll end by sharing impacts of participation shared by our RPP participants, and takeaways for how to get more educators involved in research.
The Problem: Research Makes Little Impact on Practice
While there is strong interest in research and practice informing one another in education, research oftentimes does not make it into the work of educators. Policies such as the current federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourage or require education leaders to use “evidence-based” results of studies that measure the impact of policies and programs. However, educators report rarely using these kinds of results, and policy analyses have found little impact of peer-reviewed research on education policies and practices. School and district leaders report that other kinds of evidence, such as books that provide frameworks for guiding the implementation of policy, are more useful to their work than peer-reviewed impact studies.
How Education Leaders Do Use Research
Research does figure into education leaders’ thinking and decision making, though not always in the form of evidence from a particular study. In less direct ways, ideas connected to research often circulate in educational systems. Carol Weiss used the term knowledge creep to describe how research ideas influence policy in indirect ways, blending into a group’s collective understanding through general concepts, which gradually creep into policy decisions. Sometimes leaders also participate in research and evaluation activities directly, in what Weiss and others have termed the process use of research. Consider the differences between reading a research article and conducting an empirical study. The written report may have some influence on practice. However, the act of conducting one’s own study will result in a different type of learning, including a deepened understanding of the strengths, limitations, and applicability of research findings. Participants also are more likely to implement research findings if they are involved in the data collection process.
The Impact of Education Leaders’ Participation in Research Processes
In our recent article in Evidence & Policy, we walk readers through the step-by-step process we designed to involve state science leaders in the collection and analysis of data, including specific details such as timing and prompts. We encourage others to share their detailed processes, hoping to increase the use of participatory research within RPPs.
State science leaders and researchers together planned and conducted focus groups of educators throughout their respective states and then analyzed the qualitative data from the focus groups. Findings from the focus groups offered insights that led education leaders to make important adjustments to their goals for improving science education in their states.
In addition, through state leaders’ participation in these research processes, they shifted their understanding of the value of qualitative research. This is significant because the majority of education leaders often use quantitative outcomes data such as test scores and graduation rates, but they do not regularly place value on qualitative data. Qualitative data can support leaders to identify where in the system they can make changes. Leaders can work with information about what is happening before, and leading up to, quantitatively measured outcomes. Consistent with the scholarship on process use, this shift in leaders’ understandings of the value of qualitative data supports the idea that more research should engage educators as researchers.
How Can We Get More Educators Involved in Research?
One conclusion we draw from our study is that participants in systems can benefit from taking part in research that impacts those systems.
In the context of education, district and state curriculum leaders have a number of entry points for engaging in the kind of research conducted here:
- Many districts and some states have research offices with staff who could facilitate similar processes to the ones described in our paper.
- Another vehicle for participation might be through research-practice partnerships similar to ours, where external researchers serve as facilitators and co-analysts of data.
- Outside of a partnership context, stakeholders in systems at the ground level could engage in participatory action research (PAR) efforts that are supported by leaders.
Policies that enable education leaders to participate in research, along with resources allocated to support those policies, are needed to allow for participation. These include vehicles for leaders to serve as co-Principal Investigators on externally funded grants, as well as funding for staff time and travel to participate in research activities.
Ultimately, a key benefit of engaging system leaders in research processes is to enhance their understanding of pressing issues, and skills in eliciting perspectives of stakeholders. Opportunities for education leaders to fully engage in the research process in turn may result in a greater influence of the research on practice and local policy.
Key Words: Research-Practice Partnerships, Research Utilization, Focus Groups, Qualitative Participatory Research