Making Education Research Work for You

By Frederick M. Hess and Juliet Squire

When using education research, school board members, superintendents, and district leaders are in a sometimes frustrating position. They are implored, or even required by law, to make “scientifically based” decisions. They are inundated with research findings; a Google search on merit pay, for instance, yields more than a half-million hits. But they do not have the resources to sift through various studies and determine which are most promising for their districts.

Making matters especially difficult is talk of “data-driven decision making” and “scientifically based research.” These phrases imply that translating research into policy and practice is a relatively straightforward matter of latching onto the right solutions and making them work.

If only it were that simple.

Being smart about education research requires thinking about what it actually shows, when and where the findings apply, and how the implications are being explained and promoted. The hard truth is that research is produced and disseminated by researchers, public officials, education groups, journalists, and advocacy organizations—all of whom inevitably have their own views, incentives, and biases. Even well-intentioned efforts to promote the use of rigorous research may flounder if officials pay insufficient regard to the way these forces affect the marketing of findings and recommendations.

Drawing from the book When Research Matters, here are some suggestions that district leaders can use as they negotiate the thorny challenges of turning research into useful policy.

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