Vanessa Siddle Walker
Winship Distinguished Research Professor
Division of Educational Studies
Thank you for the opportunity to become part of the conversation Spencer is initiating on issues related to the quality and dissemination of educational research. As I understand it, you desire from me 1) an assessment of five types of research and the reasons I believe these particular research projects did/did not influence the educational community, and 2) an assessment of the reasons I believe these research projects became influential in the educational community. I respond to each of these questions below. However, at the conclusion, I also raise another issue that I believe functions as a mediating variable in determining the extent to which research influences policy and practice.
Allow me to begin with some contextual musing on the complexity of the task. In thinking about your request, I contemplated whether research was influential when there was wide-based policy/practitioner knowledge of, rather than implementation of, the ideas generated by the research. I wondered further about the relationships between disciplinary expectations and policy/practitioner dissemination. For example, should the value of a building of a body of knowledge be mitigated if the particular discipline does not lend itself to direct implications for school practice? In particular, as outlined in the request letter, I questioned how to make judgments about the degree and nature of influence of particular research projects, especially given the difficulty of defining improvement and influence. In the end, I approached the task by defining influence as broad-based familiarity with research ideas in policy and practice; I did not incorporate improved student achievement as a variable in making decisions about particular research projects.
Despite numerous possibilities, I have chosen as exemplar cases the research of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences; Jackie Irvine, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and James Banks on multicultural education and culturally responsive pedagogy; Steve Raudenbush on communities and interventions for at-risk children in urban areas; Linda Darling-Hammond on highly qualified teachers and inequalities in school settings; and Gary Orfield and Amy Stuart Wells on desegregation. In addition to the extensive funding received individually and collectively by each of these scholars, the ideas embodied in the research have become common language among educators and policy makers. Gardner’s research, first introduced more than 20 years ago, continues to be routinely referenced by practicing teachers as an avenue for lesson planning and addressing individual differences in the classroom. Professional development workshops for teachers throughout the country are frequently embedded with models of culturally responsive pedagogy, an approach to teaching developed simultaneously (but not collaboratively) by Jackie Irvine and Gloria Ladson-Billings. The philosophical underpinning of this research is linked conceptually to the ideas generated by James Banks more than 30 years ago. Darling-Hammond, Orfield, and Wells have all become common names among policy makers on issues related to school inequality; in particular, their work was widely visible and discussed during the 50th anniversary year of the Brown v. Board of Education celebration. Moreover, Raudenbush’s research in the Chicago community has become a model for planning community intervention programs.
What do these researchers have in common? It seems to me that each works in an area where there is a perceived societal need. In other words, a wider educational audience can perhaps more easily embrace their work because the research puts forth answers to questions that the wider audience has already pondered. Thus, the relationship between school inequality and community behaviors or the need to equip teachers pedagogically to address the needs children bring with them are both examples of questions many contemporary educators and policy makers wish to have answered. I believe it is no coincidence that widely utilized research addresses a need already present within the practitioner/policy community.
I think the research named also embodies a “multiplier” effect that makes the work more commonly known. By “multiplier” effect, I mean that the ideas have been extended by other researchers and/or have been worked on over time. Although I have not named the large numbers of other junior and senior scholars who have addressed aspects of the projects named above, each researcher has worked either in collaboration with other researchers to extend and clarify the research ideas, and/or the work has been continued by other independent researchers. I also note that all of these researchers have worked on these ideas 20 years or more. In ways consistent with one of the points raised in the request letter, I believe the development of influential research takes time and multiple people if a substantial body of knowledge is to be built and disseminated in a particular area.
Audience is another variable in the dissemination of ideas. Scholars who choose to become public intellectuals and address their work to an audience beyond the scholarly educational community may be more likely to be heard by the larger policy and practitioner community. Addressing this audience may occur in a written format or through the physical presence of the scholar in settings where policy makers/practitioners make decisions. For example, although the nature of scholarly inquiry demands that researchers read other scholarly journals, practitioners and policy makers are more likely to consult a different set of journals/newspapers. When I think about the researchers above, I am struck by the extent to which their work has been incorporated in policy reports, press releases, and other forums read by practitioners/policy makers. I also note that many of these scholars are willing to condense the complexity of their work to more manageable phrases and “sound bites” so that the findings of the research can be more easily disseminated to a broad audience. This willingness to address the research to a target educational audience is also, I believe, significant in explaining the extent to which their work has been utilized by practitioners and policy makers.
While this should go without saying, it is also worth noting that each of the scholars is engaged in a high quality of research and that each works from a well-funded research institution. Though their methodologies vary substantially, all of the scholars have received some form of peer-reviewed awards that substantiate the perceived quality of their work. Moreover, in most cases the scholar directs, has directed, or is affiliated with some kind of funded center that supports the work. The role of funding, university support, and visibility of institutional affiliation should also be taken into account in considering the capacity of the research to speak to the larger educational community.
These ideas represent my initial thinking about why these particular researchers may have influenced policy and/or practice. However, I also believe another factor is at work that is masked when the conversation is narrowly focused upon the practices of researchers who wield policy/practitioner influence. In focusing attention upon the variables that may influence the dissemination and utilization of research, we embrace an implicit linear correlation between particular researcher behaviors and practitioner/policy implementation. That is, if good research is conducted and has associated with it certain named variables (such as those posed above), the research will be valued and utilized within the policy/practitioner community. At its root, this correlation implicitly assumes that good research and appropriate researcher behaviors will generate good policy and practice.
The problem with this correlation is that numerous examples abound of excellent research that is not utilized for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the work or any of the variables named above. Ed Zigler’s excellent work on Head Start has not been massively funded, despite compelling data demonstrating the advantages the program can provide low-income children. Jeannie Oaks and colleagues have established the beneficial effects of heterogeneous grouping on school children of all educational levels, yet homogenous tracking persists nationwide. Even Darling-Hammond and Orfield, despite the fact that their work is well known by policy makers, have not been able to shift the tide in inequitable resources in individual schools and the district resegregation that is occurring throughout the south.
Examples also abound of policies/practices that are widely funded and utilized; yet, little to no research base was part of the decision-making. The most striking example is school desegregation. Desegregation policies, as they were implemented in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were not designed based on an extant research base. Yet, the lack of research in the area did not prohibit wide spread structural decisions that influenced schooling forms and behavior throughout the South. Even where data were available, such as that disseminated by the National Education Association, these data were not used to inform decisions.
The mediating variable on questions of the relationship between research and policy/practitioner influence is one of power and influence. Both the examples of excellent research that is not utilized and the wide-spread incorporation of ideas that have little research base all share one common variable. Their implementation, or lack thereof, seems to be more correlated with the political power structure and perceptions of the ways research findings may upset political constituencies than with the availability of, or quality of, educational research. As researchers, we should engage in numerous conversations about the value of certain research designs (certainly a heavily contested issue currently embroiling the community), and we should coordinate and disseminate ideas about how to make our research more accessible and usable. But, these efforts should not mask the deep ways political structures compromise the capacity of research to effect change.
In sum, I do believe behaviors can be identified that may be common across some researchers who are able to influence policy and practice in the educational community. Among these are needs for knowledge in the particular area, multiple researchers working in an area, provision of time to conduct high quality research, attention to audience in dissemination of ideas, and institutional settings that support well-designed research. However, I also believe that researchers can engage in all of these behaviors and have the influence of their work stifled if no concurrent conversation emerges that explicitly addresses the role of power and politics in decisions about the implementation of research.
I hope these thoughts are helpful as you continue to gather data and discuss this important topic. I have appreciated having the opportunity to offer input.