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Democratizing Evidence in Education and Why it Matters

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This week, we invite readers into a dialogue on how we can democratize evidence in education, what that means and looks like, and why it matters.

This post is by Vivian Tseng (@VivianT88), the senior vice president of programs at the William T. Grant Foundation (@wtgrantfdn), and Jim Kohlmoos (@jimkohlmoos), a co-founder and partner of EDGE Consulting.

Stay tuned: Later this week we will hear specific calls to action from the research community, the philanthropic community, and the educator community.

Why Democratize Evidence in Education?

For decades, educators have decried the experience of having research done to them rather than with them; their marginalization in the evidence enterprise intensified in the early 2000s as policymakers used data and research for high-stakes accountability purposes. Communities, parents, and students have also been left on the sidelines far too often in efforts to leverage evidence for change. Researchers who want their work to be meaningful and impactful still find themselves secluded behind the ivory towers of academia or the glossy walls of research organizations. We know the challenges, and it's well past time that we tackle them in serious, organized, and systematic ways.  

What Does Democratizing Evidence Look Like?

In 2016, Vivian Tseng, Steve Fleischman, and Esther Quintero wrote a chapter on Democratizing Evidence in Education to begin laying out initial ideas, and in February 2017, the William T. Grant Foundation convened more than 40 researchers, practitioners, policymakers, funders, and civil rights organizations to consider what it would mean to democratize evidence and the urgency of the challenges. We discussed what it would look like to infuse democratic principles into the work of building and using evidence, and how we can create the conditions for more democratic work. We considered the roles different people would need to play and and the ways we would need to renegotiate our relationships with one another. We reckoned with the need for new skills and structures that would enable different stakeholders to critically appraise research and deliberate over its implications for improving education. We examined the need to foster researchers' ability to engage in the democratic process and everyone's ability to demand and support evidence use. Inspired by the vibrant discussions, a group of volunteers drafted a statement of principles outlining what democratizing evidence would entail. It states:

"Democratizing evidence means recognizing the promise of education research as a vehicle for public engagement and educational equity. Good evidence used in meaningful ways can inform new education programs, guide teachers' day-to-day decisions in classrooms, and assist parents in advocating for their children's needs. It can also expose inequitable opportunities to learn, and it can empower public action. Imagine an alternative world in which parents and teachers use jargon-free research products to inform their decisions, or where research questions are informed by the life experiences of young people and educators. Imagine an engaged public where students, parents, teachers, policymakers, and professional researchers come together to analyze data and formulate questions that can improve education practice. These ways of using evidence ought to be part of what it means to democratize evidence in education."

We further developed four guiding principles:

  • Inclusive engagement: An inclusive and diverse group of stakeholders—students, educators, researchers, families, communities, and people of different ethnicities, races, socioeconomic statusesmust participate as informed voices in shaping the production and use of research. It is particularly important to ensure the engagement of those most adversely affected by education inequality.  
  • Participation across the research process: Stakeholder participation should span the entire spectrum of research production and use; it should include identifying problems to study, developing research agendas, conducting research, interpreting findings, and using research evidence to design and implement policy and practice.
  • Responsive research agendas: Research should address high-priority problems of practice and policy so that all students can benefit and succeed.
  • Responsible evidence production and use: To create a more evidence-informed education system, all stakeholders must respect scientific inquiry and reporting while recognizing the place of community values in education decisionmaking.

Next Steps

If you support these principles, we welcome you to join us by signing onto the Statement of Principles. More importantly, we invite your participation in a larger dialogue about the ways we can collectively democratize evidence in education.  

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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