Trust and the Use of Research Evidence

When policymakers, practitioners, and others use research evidence, they do so within a web of human relationships. The strength of research evidence alone doesn’t guarantee consistent interpretation or its implementation. But the quality of relationships does matter when it comes to understanding and using research evidence–and trust is a critical factor for determining the quality of these relationships.

Whether these relationships consist of school-district administrators deciding whether to implement a new science curriculum, state legislators considering proposals for tying education funding to student achievement, school counselors developing a protocol for identifying at-risk children, and more, the situations in which people may use research evidence typically place people in relation to others. Even the solitary practitioner reading a research report cannot avoid these relationships, since he or she may imagine the conditions under which the research may be used with students or its likely reception by co-workers. In these situations, research evidence cannot speak for itself. Research evidence cannot guarantee a consistent interpretation of its findings among diverse users; it cannot recommend an efficacious procedure for its implementation. Instead, the use of research evidence requires acts of meaning-making and judgment from the people who must interpret this evidence, determine its significance and relevance, and discern contexts for its potential implementation. Since these decisions typically occur in conjunction with others, the quality of these relationships matter both for the extent to which people may use research evidence and the manner in which they use it. And trust appears as an important factor for determining the quality of these relationships.

I came to appreciate the importance of trusting relationships for the use of research evidence through my work on the Research on Education, Deliberation, and Decision Making (REDD) Project, a William T. Grant funded project for which I served as the co-principal investigator along with Deb Gurke, who now works as the Director of Research and Development for the Milwaukee Public Schools. Working with three graduate students, we spent two years from 2009 to 2011 attending meetings and tracking the deliberations and decision making of school boards in three Wisconsin districts: Beloit, Elmbrook, and West Bend. Although all three districts serve roughly 7,000 students, they differ in terms of diversity and socioeconomic status. As a working-class community along the Wisconsin-Illinois border, Beloit serves a minority majority student population in which more than three-quarters of all students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Serving a middle-class, predominantly white community northwest of Milwaukee, West Bend represents a district in transition, as rising numbers of minority students as well as students qualifying for free and reduced lunch have entered the district in the last ten years. Located in the prosperous suburbs west of Milwaukee, Elmbrook serves an overwhelmingly white and economically advantaged student population.

At the end of our two years of fieldwork, REDD team members conducted open-ended, semi-structured interviews with all of the board members and top administrators, including all three superintendents, across the districts. We asked them about their perceptions of research, their decision making processes, and their district culture. In most of the interviews, they identified trust as an important aspect of their decision making. Yet their understandings of trust differed importantly from the prominent conceptions of trust that dominate the expansive, interdisciplinary literature on the subject, which views trust as primarily signaling an attitude. This attitudinal conception is prominent in survey-based research that asks respondents to indicate whether they trust the government, or trust strangers, or something else. Our interviewees meant something different. Board members and administrators understood trust as developing through relationships with others. Our interviewees sometimes referenced a board member or administrator as trustworthy, but trustworthiness effectively stood as a positive, summary judgment of previous interactions with someone. More important, our interviewees saw trust as something they could build through their interactions with others. Trust appeared not as a precondition or an outcome of their deliberations, but as an activity that unfolded through deliberations.

Why does this relationship view of trust matter for the use of research evidence? It matters because levels of trust in relationships among and between decision-makers and others, like support staff, who provide them information for decision making, influence their receptivity to all types of evidence, including research evidence. We witnessed these dynamics in our observations of Beloit, Elmbrook, and West Bend, and our interviewees corroborated this finding. When relationships falter, decision makers tend to disregard whatever evidence a colleague may introduce into deliberations. In contrast, when decision makers maintain trusting working relationships with each other, they tend to be receptive to the ways that research and other types of evidence may bear on a decision.

Since relationships may be transformed, people may work to build trust where little or none exists and enhance the capacity for using research evidence in particular contexts. Drawing inspiration from the REDD interviews, I have considered practices that deliberators may pursue to build trust in their relationships: flexibility, forthrightness, engagement, and heedfulness. Practicing flexibility entails treating other positions as potentially reasoned and justifiable. Forthrightness consists of speaking honestly and sincerely. Engagement means learning about perspectives and positions different from one’s own. Heedfulness involves committing oneself to decisions reached through deliberation. By practicing trust in deliberation, participation may increase each other’s receptivity to research and other types of evidence and improve the quality of their decision making.