Finnigan, Kara S., and Alan J. Daly, eds. 2014. Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill. Springer: New York, 194 pp., $129 (hardcover).
March 16, 2016
Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy
Educators are sitting on more data and research than ever before. It is now possible for districts and states to track and correlate student demographics, teacher qualifications, school climate, and academic outcomes. Domestic and international research abounds, from the findings of PISA to school sector comparisons and analyses of district finances. The United States Department of Education publishes granular statistics and evaluates the merits of specific research studies; the Pew Research Center supports an encyclopedic website that compares research on hundreds of interventions.
But does this numerical feast make a difference for students? In some states, in some districts, and in some schools, the answer is clearly “yes.” However, the performance of American students on national and international assessments remains so persistently low (Hanushek et. al., 2014), that we rightly question the extent to which even the most compelling research about what works, matters.
The United States is fortunate, however: a new door opened to the use of evidence when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. Will we walk through it? The act (ESSA, 2015) enjoins, defines, and rewards the use of evidence in education policy and practice. Is it likely to change the way decisions are made in districts and states?
On this, Finnigan and Daly’s 2014 volume is provocative and useful: it investigates how education research is applied in the real world and how we might strengthen the link between important findings and practice. The authors begin with a theory about how new knowledge fits into existing systems (or doesn’t), and then test it through meticulous case studies of district-, state- and federal-level education agencies.
Sociocultural learning theory, as Finnigan and Daly explain it, suggests that knowledge is shared and sustained through social networks that rely upon particular assumptions and practices– whether tacit or explicit. Members of such networks adopt or discount new information in conversation with one another and with reference to existing modes of doing things. As the editors put it, “Research is rarely used in a linear way; rather, the process of transferring research into practice occurs in a multidimensional, complex way that is social and interactive…it unfolds within a social ecology of relationships (3).” Thus, “most research use fits into pre-existing beliefs (35),” and disruptive change requires “intensive assistance relationships (34).” In other words, a research report, on its own, is inert. It is therefore insufficient for education reformers to present “evidence” without understanding, and even inhabiting, the context that is to receive it. The sociocultural learning theory presented here mirrors the process of change that, some argue, occurs within the natural sciences (Polanyi, 1958), intellectual movements (Collins, 1998), and culture more generally (Hunter, 2010), to wit: knowledge is personal, and new ideas become mainstream not by virtue of their merits but as a result of their promotion by overlapping and influential networks.
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