Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Research and Policy

Kevin Carey talks about educational research and educational policy writing and how too many academics think they are doing one when in fact they are doing the other. And Carey should know.

Very few people involved with education dispute the notion that research on what works in education and what does not work is an important aspect of the effort to improve educaiton. While we may quibble with individual studies, methodologies and perhaps biases, I don't think anyone serious about education will doubt the sincerity of those offering educational research up for consumption.

But, as Carey points out, the writers and researchers need to better understand their audience. Educational research has two basic audiences, although it may be read and used by others. Those audiences are other researchers and academics and the other audience is policymakers. Pure research is for academics and other interested persons. Research to uderscore policy options is another matter entirely and the results of such research should be written with that in mind.
Beyond the above, there are also some important issues of structure to understand. Academic writing tends to be structured something like this:

1) Lit Review
2) Methods
3) Results
4) Conclusions (Possibly--"More research is needed" does not count as a conclusion.)

This is a terrible way to communicate with policymakers. They don't care about the lit review and the methods. You're the expert; they trust that you know what you're talking about and conducted the analysis correctly. (Maybe they shouldn't, but they do.) They're interested in context, results and conclusions. By that I mean: What did you find, and why does it matter? To present this information, you should write like this:

1) Context: why is this issue important?
2) Results: what did you find?
3) Conclusions: what do these results mean? (This should flow logically from the context)

Put the methods in an appendix, and only include stuff from the lit review if it helps establish context or supports your conclusions. I understand that this means writing in a different way than is appropriate for peer-reviewed academic research. Which is fine; different audiences and purpose, different format. To repeat: write for the reader, who wants the good stuff at the beginning, not the end. In fact, all he or she wants is the good stuff. So give that, and nothing else.
I have made a similar point when teachers are faced with the desire to impact the policymaking process--namely policymakers don't have time for all the complaining and concerns. They want options, suggestions, material they can take action on--so give it to them.

The same applies for research. The single most important three pages of any study given to a policy makers is the executive summary. All the rest is for the policy maker's staff and technocrats. The policymakers needs the highlights, the take-away and the action point. Everything else is superflous until such time as there is to sit down and read in full--which may never come.

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