Make It Local with In-House Researchers
I agree wholeheartedly with Tom Kane’s argument that we need to invest more in localized research and that we can do so with integrated data systems, relationships between districts and analytic partners, and “venues for synthesizing results.” I made very similar arguments in an article released by the Brookings Institution in December.
If there is one difference between my argument and Kane’s, it is that he argues for relying on outside analytic partners, whereas I argue that we need to build a new cadre of researchers employed by school districts, state agencies, and local nonprofits. This new army of researchers, with master’s degrees and certificates, would have many of the skills of Ph.D. researchers, especially the ability to design and carry out randomized trials and rigorous quasi-experiments.
But these in-house researchers would have important advantages over the Ph.D.s.
First, there would be far more of them. There will never be enough Ph.D.s to carry out or even advise on this type of work, especially not at a price education agencies can afford.
Second, the in-house researchers would be more connected to practice. Many would have been teachers or administrators themselves, and they would be working in school and education agencies on a daily basis. Ph.D. researchers think in the abstract, which is good for basic science but not always the best for applied work intended to aid in the improvement of specific schools.
Third, in-house researchers will be able to help education leaders interpret outside research and understand whether the results apply in their contexts. Context matters, and those working in schools know their own contexts better than anyone.
Fourth, in-house researchers would generally be trained by Ph.D. researchers at universities, creating a direct relationship between education agencies and the analytic partners that I think Kane has in mind.
Fifth, by working within the education agencies that actually make decisions, the in-house researchers would also have the relationships to ensure that research is at the table—at strategy meetings with superintendents and school board meetings. Relationships are key, and these new researchers could act as a bridge between the world of university research and school practice.
There is an important role for the federal government here. IES already funds a very successful Ph.D. training program, which has helped immensely in generating more rigorous research. We now need those same Ph.D.s to train in-house researchers who can fulfill the principles of ESSA and take the research enterprise to scale in a way that, gradually, over time, can produce meaningful improvement.
—Douglas N. Harris
Douglas N. Harris is Professor of Economics and the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education at Tulane University.