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RAND Education Leader Seeks Better Implementation Research

V. Darleen Opfer has six months under her belt as head of RAND Corp.'s education division, and she's pushing to make sure the education research giant's studies actually make a difference in the field.


Opfer, who replaced former director Susan J. Bodilly, said RAND is moving its focus from "pure research" to collaborating with districts and state education agencies. The group has expanded its research reviewers to beyond other researchers to gauge whether a study's methodology is sound, but also to include policymakers and practitioners to weigh in on whether and how a study's results could be relevant.

"Part of my thinking about technical assistance is, we've got to shift the research culture to not just producing the research, but getting the research implemented," she told me this morning, while in Washington for the group's strategic planning meeting.

"My sense is that the [RAND] reports don't go far enough," she said. "Researchers tend to be very cautious about telling people what to do. They'll say, 'Ok, we did the study and here's what we found.' There will be a recommendations section but it's really small; they're really not pushing the envelope."

Researchers' unwillingness to take that "next step" to discussing implementation has left a "void" in the field that has led to the rise of issue-specific—and sometimes ideology-driven—research groups. She was not surprised at the closing of the 40-year-old Education Research Service in the evolving research landscape.

In the American education research field, the "competition has gotten so great, everybody and their brother is now doing education research and calling themselves a think tank," Opfer said. "In fact, our preference is not to say we are a think tank anymore, because the think tanks that have come up tend to be ideological, and they have moved away from the research base often."

To better connect research with implementation, Opfer—who before coming to RAND spent six years as the director of research and senior lecturer in research methods and school improvement at the University of Cambridge, England—wants to take lessons from RAND's work outside of the United States, in Qatar, India, Indonesia and Kurdistan. Researchers in those countries have tended to create in-depth, long-term partnerships with schools and government education agencies to produce both research on individual topics and 30,000-foot analyses of overarching issues in the systems.

"That's why I'm intrigued by the potential of doing technical assistance in the U.S., because you develop that kind of relationship and it frees researchers," she said. "They feel less tied to the results of a particular study, and instead they can take a step back and say, given all the work that I've done, it's not just one study but a body of work that tells me something about how something should be done here."

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