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Living in Dialogue: Who Uses Educational Research? And How?

My first response to The Push and Pull of Research: Lessons from a Multi-site Study of Research Use in Education Policy,” by Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, Janelle Scott, was clichéd. Being an optimist, I’ve kept asking why education research is misused so badly, and when smart and sincere scholars will revise their methodologies to something more reality-based than the regression studies used to justify corporate school reform. So, my response to the reality-slap in the face that is “The Push and Pull of Research” was “thanks, I needed that.”

Lubienski, Debray, and Scott “conducted scores of interviews with individuals from organizations that play a brokering role between research producers and users (policymakers), including advocacy organizations, think tanks, and media outlets.” They were particularly interested in how advocacy groups and think tanks, known as intermediary organizations, “conveyed research evidence that would illuminate policy discussions.” It is bad enough that these powerful people seem to merely assume that policy must be based on incentives and disincentives, as opposed to more comprehensive and coordinated, holistic policies. I was still dismayed to read, however, that they found philanthropies to be “largely inert ‘consumers’ of research,” while intermediary organizations (IOs) were very active in “brokering or selling particular versions of research evidence to them.”

Lubienski, Debray, and Scott asked whether these IOs gained influence because of “pull factors,” or the desire of big philanthropists to make evidence-based decisions in regard to social policy and solutions. Or, did the IOs get access through “push factors,” such as their abilities in self-promotion and the cultivating institutional “brand?”

Sadly, Lubienski, Debray, and Scott discovered that “research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research.” Instead, they documented “a remarkable amount of ‘pushing’ of research to policymakers by IOs.” They then asked “an interesting question as to why so much in the way of time and resources would be devoted to getting evidence to policymakers even while they don’t seem to ‘use’ it in shaping policy positions.”

“The Push and Pull” found that policy people “often reported an appreciation for ‘research’ as an abstract idea, but when asked to name their sources for research evidence, would point to popular media, blogs, personal contacts, or social networks—channels that often conveyed research of questionable quality.” These policy makers “would often mention not study design or peer-review, but the institution or individual that produced or conveyed the research to them (particularly if prestigious) as a sign of assumed quality.” In other words, “they didn’t do much ‘research’ on research.”

In a “well, duh” moment that even my naïve self expected, Lubienski, Debray, and Scott also concluded:

While we tend to think of “policymakers”—potential “users” or research evidence—as operating in the public sector, in our research, some high-capacity IOs administered federal initiatives (such as the TIF in New Orleans) and thus blurred the boundaries between public and private policy realms. Yet each realm has different imperatives and incentives for using research evidence in making decisions.

Yes, the Billionaires Boys Club and the think tanks who they hire, have different imperatives and incentives, as well as motives. But, surely they don’t want to damage children. So, why do they roll the dice on such policy gambles without considering the risks involved?

What do you think? Why won’t corporate reformers admit defeat? Is their “research” anything more than branding? Will they ever listen?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his n...