The Spencer Foundation was founded to “investigate ways in which education, broadly conceived, can be improved around the world.” With this mission we have funded many research projects that have investigated various topics and issues. During the past year we have spent time focusing explicitly on educational research and its impact – what types of research (Spencer and non-Spencer research) have influenced educational policy and practice – directly and indirectly, what was the type and level of the impact and how did this influence or impact evolve. We are, as are many others, curious about these issues and have decided to explore them in a more systematic manner.  

Why is this of interest? Like most individuals and entities involved in educational research, our ultimate goal is to improve education. We would like to know if we can improve the probability of achieving that goal by learning from the research we and others have funded. More specifically, are there certain types of research that have a “track record” of positively influencing educational practice? Do certain types of related research further the goal of improving education by enhancing our understanding of the educational process, e.g., the history of educational reform or the influence of socioeconomic variables, etc? How do practitioners and policy makers learn about good research? Is there enough research but not enough skilled users of the research? This is information that we believe could be valuable not only to Spencer, but also to the educational research community at large. We are particularly curious about how influence evolves. We know that it is rare for research to impact policy and practice quickly; that it takes considerable time for some research to have an impact; that some research may actually have a negative impact on practice because of misinterpretation of the data or faulty implementation of the ideas; and that some research never has an impact. If we have greater understanding about how influence evolves, the field may be able to “facilitate” the communication of important findings, expediting the impact. 

We realize that this is a very complex issue with many variables contributing to the explanation. To be sure, we do not believe that there are formulas for influential research. But we wonder if there are any broad themes that might inform us and others. 

At this point, you might be wondering what Spencer means by improvement, impact and influence. These are elusive words and can mean different things to different people. For some, improvement may mean increased educational attainment while others may construe it as more effective teaching methods verified by higher test scores. Similarly, impact and influence may connote actual change in an educational practice to some and to others it may mean changing a conceptual paradigm, which stimulates serious discussion about a particular issue. And we would agree that all of these examples, though clearly different, are illustrations of the various concepts. 

With these issues in mind, we asked a number of researchers, policy makers and practitioners for the following information:

  • five examples of research (funded by Spencer or others) that have had an impact on practice and/or policy
  • a brief description of the impact (your interpretation) and why you think it had influence
  • views on how you believe the influence evolved – further research by others in the academy, discussion and debate in the policy circles, use by practitioners, etc. 

We did not identify a particular time frame for the research nor did we limit the request to individual pieces of work. If responders felt that a series of studies (conducted by one researcher or a group of researchers) allowed for greater influence, we asked them to cite those examples. 

We anticipated that most of the examples cited would relate to positive influences but we also asked for examples of negative impact, due to interpretation issues, implementation problems or other causes. In addition, we requested thoughts about research that many thought would have an influence on educational policy and practice but, for whatever confluence of factors, did not have such an impact. And finally, we asked for any other comments or observations that the responders might have on this topic. 

We embarked on this exploration with few hypotheses in mind other than the broad ones that there might be some common characteristics to influential research and that there might be some communication factors that “assist” in the impact. As we reviewed the responses, we noted that there was “general” consistency in the types of examples cited (relevance of research, quality of research design, replicability, etc.) and that there were some dominant themes about why and how the examples influenced educational practices and policies. We noted in particular that scholars highlighted the need for effective communication of research to the relevant constituents. Scholars also commented on the barriers to effective research, offering suggestions to improve effectiveness such as the need for standards, availability of data, more focus on how and why certain interventions/techniques worked, not simply whether or not the particular approach worked, the importance for multidisciplinary research because of the complexity of many issues and the need for panels and conferences to synthesize work on such complex issues, etc. 

Overall, the responses were quite fascinating, so much so that our Board suggested that we post the comments for others to view and perhaps offer additional suggestions and comments. The above is a very brief synopsis of the project and the comments received but enough, we hope, to whet your appetite to read through and add to the discussion. Please send your comments to mcahillane@spencer.org

Responders  
  • Harris M. Cooper, Professor and Director of Education, Duke University
  • Anne Haas Dyson, Professor, Teacher Education, Michigan State University
  • Chester E. Finn, Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
  • James Paul Gee, Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Patricia Albjerg Graham, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Education Emerita, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University
  • Amy Gutman, President, University of Pennsylvania
  • Maureen Hallinan, William P and Hazel B White Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Notre Dame
  • Susan Moore Johnson, Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University
  • James G. March, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
  • Charles M. Payne, Sally Dalton Robinson Professor of History, African American Studies and Sociology, Duke University
  • Andrew Porter, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy, Vanderbilt University
  • Mike Rose, Professor, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute
  • Vanessa Siddle Walker, Winship Distinguished Research Professor, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University
  • Patricia Wasley, Dean, College of Education, University of Washington