Research is sometimes a messy process, full of trial and error, vision and revision. Recent scholarship has indicated that the use of research evidence can be messy, too.
In Democracy, Deliberation, and Education, I venture into the messy setting of research use to better understand how school board members, as local educational policymakers, encounter various constraints and opportunities in their deliberation and decision making. Lessons learned from the districts I studied may provide clues for how policymakers at the local level (and perhaps the state and national levels) consider research evidence amid the other factors that influence their decision making. I’ve found that four qualities shape local deliberation and decision making: expertise, trust, scarcity, and ideology. Together, these qualities help shape the contexts and human relationships that influence the use of research evidence in local educational policymaking.
School board members take on different roles in deliberation and decision making: they act as community members, taxpayers, parents and guardians of children, and experts. To be successful, board members must balance these roles. This balancing act produces an expertise that functions differently than the ways that we may be accustomed to. When we think of expertise, we may think of a dedicated professional who draws on specialized knowledge and training to analyze problems. This expert may have direct and indirect connections to policymaking. In contrast, operating without dedicated staffs and supporting agencies, school board members often must act as their own experts. In my research, I saw board members participate on district-level study teams that produced research reports. They sometimes relied on professional expertise to interpret complex analyses and reports produced inside and outside of the district. They drew on expertise that they had developed about their districts and education policy when considering budgets, curricula, and more. But board members did not act only as experts, they continued to balance their various roles. Expertise served board members as one perspective among others that they could adopt.
As research use occurs in human relationships, trust stands as an important quality of these relationships. When participants in deliberation and decision making build trusting relationships, they are more inclined to consider the evidence—research and other types—presented by others. In relationships that lack trust, research evidence may not even get a hearing. To understand how trust matters for research use, we need to recognize that trust works as an ongoing quality of relationships that people build together. And levels of trust may change over time. In processes of deliberation and decision making, trust does not refer to isolated moments. Rather, trust is built through repeated practice. I learned this through interviews conducted with board members and administrators in the districts I studied. They identified trust as crucial to their processes of decision making, and they talked about how trust could be built or broken. Trust meant that they spoke honestly with each other, stayed open to different ideas, engaged different perspectives, and kept their commitments to one another.
Access to research evidence requires resources, which may include a central staff large enough to support research positions or units, databases like the What Works Clearinghouse that collect studies on effective educational interventions, and more. But the resources available in local communities—outside of the district offices—also matter. When communities struggle economically, these struggles also may constrain district decision making. I examined how one particular school board, which represented a community with some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, grappled with scarcity that lent a sense of constant crisis to their work. Scarcity became a perceptual force that made board members feel as though they lacked the time and resources for deliberate decision making. Rushed, pressured, or strained deliberation may not be conducive to participants’ efforts to seek out and obtain research evidence.
In the United States and in many other nations, citizens and policymakers hold different values and beliefs that shape their approaches to public problems and policy. When policymakers consider research evidence in deliberation, they do not set their values aside and adopt a disinterested attitude toward evidence. As a political belief system, ideology shapes our approaches to public issues, policies, and research evidence. I examined how, in one especially controversial case, ideology shaped board members’ approaches to prominent district decisions. Their approaches resisted simple labels of liberal and conservative, reflecting instead complicated relationships between values, decisions, and how people interpret information and evidence.
To better understand the use of research evidence, we need to understand the needs and interests of research users, the relationships they build with each other and (perhaps) researchers, and the contexts in which they may use research. Attending to these particulars, we may resist a model of research use as moving seamlessly and transparently from the lab to the field. Instead, we may appreciate the specifics and complexities of policymaking. This does not preclude us from seeking general principles and practices, however. Even as situations vary in some respects, they may be similar in others. Considering both differences and similarities may provide a basis for seeing stronger connections between research and policy.