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Why Should Researchers Speak Up in Education Debates?

What do researchers go into the education field for? Is it pure interest in puzzles, taking apart aspects of learning and schooling to see what makes them tick, or is it the drive to make education better and more meaningful for students?

In a commentary for Education Week, Jeffrey R. Henig of Teachers College, Columbia University makes an impassioned appeal to the latter motivation, urging researchers to become involved in education debates more actively than publishing in journals.  

"The temptation can be strong to just say no, and lie low," said Henig, a professor of political science and education. But the often-bitter debates about issues like teacher evaluations, charter schools, and achievement gaps are exactly the places wheret need scholars to step in, he said:

"The more public discourse about education becomes partisan, ideological, simplistic, and simple-minded, the greater the need becomes for at least some reasonable voices to be heard—voices that distill and accurately reflect what research has to say."

The need for more help and support from researchers is only likely to deepen as the Every Student Succeeds Act rolls out. The Institute of Education Sciences is already trying to build more partnerships among educators and scholars to meet the law's new evidence standards for school improvement.

How can a researcher contribute meaningfully to education debates without getting mired in acidic back-and-forths? Patrick McCarthy, writing for the William T. Grant Foundation, calls for researchers not to shy away from "inconvenient truths" they find in their own work and others'. The essay is part of an ongoing series series on using research evidence in the post-ESSA education world.

"Evidence doesn't turn itself into policy, especially when it contradicts prevailing paradigms or entrenched funding streams," he writes. "If we are serious about a What Works movement, we can't allow ourselves or other decisionmakers to pick and choose which results we want to act upon."


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