Using Research Right

By Deb Gurke, Robert Asen, Pam Conners, Ryan Solomon, and Elsa Gumm

Evidence-based research about education policy, a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act, is rooted in the social sciences. With this definition, federal policymakers work under the assumption that research operates outside of politics, offering instead a value-neutral solution to pressing social problems.

School board members, however, operate in the political world. As elected representatives, they know it’s risky to ignore the community’s values, concerns, and desires. As federal and state mandates have increased, they also know the values that undergird these policies don’t always connect with the community’s desires, and there’s no guarantee that these conflicts can be resolved through the use of research.

Despite these difficulties, school board members can develop a more complex understanding of when and how to use research in ways that can enhance their decision-making. The Research on Educational Deliberation and Decision-making (REDD) project, a collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has observed three medium-sized school districts in the state to better understand how local policymakers use research in their decision-making processes.

From Sept. 1, 2009, through Aug. 31, 2010, REDD team members observed more than 140 committee and school board meetings. Some meetings covered controversial topics like tax increases, where more than 600 citizens attended to voice concerns over the district’s spending, while others had few observers in attendance. Boards also discussed implementing a 4-year-old kindergarten program, changes to a grading policy, nutrition, human growth and development, charter schools, open enrollment policy, high school consolidation, and drug and cell phone policies.

The three districts studied -- Beloit, Elmbrook, and West End -- are similar in size, but vary in terms of academic achievement. Finances are a concern for all, but each district has issues specific to its community and students.

By analyzing the transcripts of meetings and personal observations, we have identified a number of criteria school leaders should consider when using research to support their positions and when presenting policy positions to the public. These include identifying specifics of the research, recognizing the values underlying it, and considering the audience’s needs. We also have developed questions that could lead to a better understanding of research’s role in the decision-making process.

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