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My Life as a Researcher and a Candidate

Taking over the guest blog this week is Andy Saultz, an assistant professor and the director of the Ph.D. in Education and Leadership Program at Pacific University. He is currently running for the Oregan state legislature and was previously a social studies teacher. This week, Andy will be discussing how education policy has shifted in Oregon and why that matters, and how we should expand the scope of what we mean by "education policy."

I have spent the last decade as a researcher studying educational policy and politics with the goal of improving our system. For the past six months, I have also been a candidate for the Oregon state legislature. I have learned a lot balancing these two roles as I spend my days engaged with literature reviews and methodological detail and my weekends knocking on doors talking with voters. More than anything, it has shed light onto a few blind spots I had as a researcher and how lived experiences of families in the school system are not well represented in the academic discourse.

Class size

The research community is fixated on effect sizes, causality, and complex models. While these help us understand the statistical relationships between variables, they do not always represent individual experiences. The research community too often treats class size as one of many variables to consider. In my conversations as a candidate, class size frequently becomes a symbol of an environment where teachers are able to get to know all the students.

Consider a story I heard the other day from a neighbor with a daughter in kindergarten. My neighbor went to her first parent/teacher conference and was surprised when the teacher told her that her daughter was disruptive, distracted, and rude. My friend, the mother, was horrified. After talking with her husband, and calling the teacher the next week, they found out that the teacher was talking about the other kid in the class with the same name. Her takeaway, class sizes were too big and did not allow the teacher to get to know her daughter.

I hear a lot about class size on the campaign trail, and my sense is that a lot of Oregonians equate class size with the quality of education. To them, class-size impact on test scores misses the point that they want to know their child has a personal connection with her teacher.

Money

I live in northwest Portland, Oregon, in a district that is known for its commitment to public education. Voters proudly tout that they always support the schools and opine that teachers are underpaid. On the campaign trail, I have heard a lot of folks say things like, "We always vote for school bonds but wonder what we get for the additional money." Voters want to support a cause they feel good about. But increasingly, they also want to see some return for an additional investment. One neighbor I was talking with the other day said, "I always vote for more money for schools, because public education is so important. I just wish I saw something in return for that extra money." While researchers focus on how money relates to specific student outcomes, many voters just want more information. Too often the state or local government asks voters to invest in public education without following up about how that money was spent to improve schools, student performance, or teacher pay.

An issue of scale

The biggest difference between running for office and researching educational policy is the scale at which the conversations take place. In educational policy-research circles, people tend to focus on systems, districts, or schools. The idea is to think about what creates positive effects and how we can replicate those efforts. Variables are placed in relation to one another. Researchers consider the marginal return of investment when deciding how to proceed.

But parents rarely think in those terms. Instead, they think about their child(ren) and their experience in schools. Parents do not care what the research says if their child cannot read. They do not care that the new standards work on average; they want it to work for their little one. The researcher is trained to resist the anecdote, while a single story is the most powerful thing to a concerned parent.

Researchers can help people understand what others are going through, so they can support initiatives that do not directly help them or their children. They can articulate relative costs and benefits and help communities navigate finite resources. Effective leadership is about listening to individual stories and helping the community come together to use limited resources in a way that best serves all students. Combining these two critical perspective is essential to building a more equitable system.

— Andy Saultz

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