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The Tricky Dance of Researchers and Educators Gets Even More Complex


The Every Student Succeeds Act highlighted partnerships beween states and districts and researchers to find more effective ways to use education data and improve instruction. On paper, at least. 

In reality, researcher access to data has become an even more complex dance, with an unprecedented flow of education data that is balanced out by heightened concerns about privacy and the potential fallout of negative results, as researchers and officials discussed during the annual conference of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

A majority of states have tightened legal restrictions around the use of education data in recent years to protect student privacy, with some states, such as Louisiana, creating highly debated limits on data in education research.

Katharine Strunk, an education policy professor at Michigan State University who has researched in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified school district for more than a decade, said researchers often don't do enough to build trust among districts and state education agencies. "I think there have been a lot of instances where districts have felt like researchers just want to do their cool study, and they don't care if it actually impacts kids or is useful to [the districts] in any way," she said. 

In Massachusetts, which has a reputation of providing data to researchers regularly, research director Carrie Conaway said it can be tough to prioritize her staff's time to provide data and walk researchers through how to use it. That often means studies focused on more general education topics take a back seat to those with more immediate or long-term policy implications for the state, such as career and technical education.

There's a fine line, though, between states doing triage with limited staff capacity and avoiding research studies because they are worried about negative results.

"I think sometimes that data is not provided because of concerns about what it might say, and I think sometimes data is not collected by places out of concern for what it might say," said Dan Goldhaber, CALDER's director and University of Washington education researcher.

"I've never had a district or state say, 'Oh, you can't say that," said Tim Sass, an economics professor at Georgia State University who heads the Metropolitan Atlanta Policy Lab for Education, a research partnership with Atlanta public schools. "But I have had circumstances where government agencies chose not to allow research to start, and it was never explicit but it seemed pretty clear they were simply concerned it might give them an answer they didn't want to know. So the research never moved forward."

Creating longer-term research partnerships can help build capital to convince districts to move forward in research, he said.

"In our new partnership in Atlanta, we made very clear that if you want to participate, if you tell us you want to study something, then you've got to live with the results, whatever they are. I think it's important to get that up front,'' Sass said.

Conaway agreed. She said that even when state education officials are wary about a program evaluation or study of a sensitive topic, working with researchers can help educators be a bigger part of policy debates on education in state government. "There are benefits to being a place known for taking empirical evidence seriously," she said.

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