Educational Policy Research: An Opportunity to Connect Research and Policy?

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by Kenneth J. Retzl, Ph.D.

The annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which took place April 5-9, is considered one of the major academic conferences for educational research, attended by educational practitioners and scholars from school districts, community colleges, and universities to discuss their latest research. While the Guinn Center presented a report that examined the impact from the elimination of the high school proficiency exam on Nevada’s graduation rates (a condensed version of the paper can be found here), this blog will focus on my observations of the conference. I had traveled with anticipation of discussing the latest findings in education policy research and, more specifically, the associated policy recommendations that could assist Nevada’s educational landscape. Unfortunately, while hundreds of informative research papers and projects were presented, there were very few discussions regarding how to integrate these studies into policy and practice in our school districts, classrooms, and professional development efforts.

A common theme from the conference was the broad concern from researchers regarding the seeming over-reliance by practitioners and policy officials on standardized test results. One scholar compared the results of standardized assessments to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This physics-based principle states that the more precise one gets to measuring the position of a particle, the less precise one gets to measuring momentum. Applying this to education, as an assessment provides more accurate data regarding a student’s current knowledge/proficiency level, the less that same test can provide details about that student’s learning growth. Combine this “uncertainty” with what we expect from assessment results: to both effect and detect change. Educators, schools, and local and state education agencies all use assessments to signal the knowledge they deem important (i.e. effecting change). However, these same assessments are also intended to provide insights into how well students obtain the knowledge and skills deemed important (i.e., detecting change). From these remarks, it makes one wonder if too much importance has been placed on a single indicator of student success. However, from most of the discussions I attended, standardized test scores/proficiency rates remained the primary variable to measure program effectiveness or to compare schools/districts.

Expanding on the over-reliance of test scores in the current education environment, a panel of scholars explored the notion that schools have been overly influenced by ideas from the business world. The underlying idea presented (based on the book The Blackboard and the Bottom Line) was that since the 1970s and 1980s, education has been focused on a “bottom line;” much like a business would focus on its share price or earnings. In educational terms, the “bottom line” of a school/district/state are the results of standardized tests/proficiency rates. Fundamental to this conversation was an important question regarding the role of education in society. Most of the scholars believed in a more traditional view of education – its importance in preparing students to be good citizens. The scholars argued that the focus on standardized tests scores created the viewpoint that education was simply a tool of social mobility. While never explicitly stated, these individuals implied that these goals, creating good citizens vs. enhancing student social mobility, were irreconcilable. Regardless of this debate, the idea that education focuses too heavily on the results of standardized tests is an idea that warrants further consideration.

Another topic addressed at the conference was how students and families engage with education data. Because of the importance the Guinn Center places on using data to make sound decisions, as well as the expansive amount of information available in this state regarding educational outcomes (particularly from the Nevada School Performance Framework – the system that assigns a star-rating to a school – and the Nevada Report Card), I had hoped to confirm the importance families placed on data when choosing which school to send their student. However, a grouping of studies dispelled that myth. The research presented suggested that parents choose schools based on their friend/acquaintance network more often than from analyzing data. The importance of peer networks is well-established (e.g., research that finds peer networks influence a student’s decision if and where to attend college). Regardless, the research also suggests that there is value and a role for the work that Guinn Center and others (including Opportunity 180) are undertaking to assist families in “demystifying” the school performance data.

Overall, AERA was a great opportunity to become more familiar with the current research and methodologies that scholars are using to study educational issues. However, my biggest concern with the collective body of research presented is that very few scholars presented actionable recommendations that could be considered by legislators, parents, districts, schools, advocates, etc. More often than that, the research informed presentations reviewed and evaluated historical policies, but stopped short of providing how to correct, improve, or replace the programs and policies in question.

Each AERA annual meeting has a theme. This year’s theme was “Leveraging Education Research in a Post-Truth Era,” which sought to emphasize the importance of using data to counteract false narratives in the world. The conference was full of studies presenting data to inform conclusions. A few years ago the AERA annual meeting’s theme was “Knowledge to Action,” – or simply, bridging the divide between research and policy/practice. Based on this year’s conference, however, it seems that bridge is still under construction.