How educators and policy makers think differently about research

Jennifer Lawlor, Kathryn McAlindon, Kristen Mills, Jennifer Neal and Zachary Neal

Policy makers are working hard to promote the use of research in education. But, does ‘research’ mean the same thing to policy makers and educators? While this question might seem basic, it’s important to know if policy makers and educators are speaking the same language.

In this blog, we discuss the findings of our recent research article, ‘What is research? Educators’ conceptions and alignment with United States federal policies‘, published in Evidence & Policy, which has been awarded the 2019 Carol Weiss Prize.

It examines similarities and differences between educators’ definitions of research and the definitions used in US Federal education policy. Our findings show that educators tend to focus on the process and products of research, while policy definitions focus on data and outcomes.

Over the course of 90 interviews with educators, we began to notice patterns in the way educators defined research. This presented an opportunity to pause and ask: what differences exist in the way educators and policy makers think about research? Because US Federal policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) encourage or mandate the use of research, the stakes are high for educators to comply. So, if educators and policy makers are on different pages about what counts as ‘research’, this can be a problem. At the same time, finding ways to bring educators’ and policy makers’ perspectives into alignment can help support collaboration between these groups.

What do educators think? Defining research

Educators defined research in two key ways. First, they identified elements of the research process, including:

• Who conducts the research
• How the research is designed
• How the program or practice is carried out

Second, educators’ definition of research included the products of research, including:

  • Data or information from a systematic investigation
  • Fit or compatibility of research to school context
  • Credibility and the reputation of who conducted, shared, or promoted the research activity

Are definitions similar enough? Looking between educators and US federal educational policies

Both educators and policy makers discussed research processes, but in different ways. For example, educators’ definitions which were broad in terms of research design, while policy definitions focused on specific types of research designs such as experiments. Similarly, while educators discussed research as a process for generating knowledge, policies narrowly defined it as a process for testing hypotheses.

Educators and policy makers also both discussed research products, but again in different ways. Educators were primarily concerned with the reputation of the researcher and with the extent to which the findings fit into their own schools, while policies focus on data, outcomes, and the credibility of findings.

How can we close the gap?

  • Policy makers and educators: Federal policy makers and educators can work together when education policy is being developed to ensure that they are speaking the same language. This can help ensure that definitions of research and policies will be understood in the same way by both the policy and practitioner communities.
  • Educators: Educators can employ checklists, like the ESSA summary of recommended study criteria, to assess when and to what extent a piece of evidence satisfies policy requirements for the use of research.
  • Researchers: Researchers should report things that arise in federal policy definitions of research, including: validity, reliability, and details regarding experimental designs that attend to federal policy definitions of research. But, they should also report the features of their work that matter to educators, including details about the settings where the research was conducted

What is research? Educators’ conceptions and alignment with United States federal policies is published in Evidence & Policy. Read the latest issue of Evidence & Policy online and read the most read articles from 2019 for free until the end of February.


This post was originally published by Transforming Society on 11 February 2020.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy [Open Access]:

Mills, K. J. Lawlor, J. A. Watling Neal, J. Neal, Z. P. and McAlindon, K. (2019) What is research? Educators’ conceptions and alignment with United States federal policiesEvidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15468576296175.

Image credit: Deva Darshan on Unsplash


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Understanding evidence use within education policy: a policy narrative perspective [Open Access]

Brokering research in science education policy implementation: the case of a professional association

The ‘policy-preferences model’: a new perspective on how researchers can facilitate the take-up of evidence by educational policy makers

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