The research that is being conducted on education…a few brief words…

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Marc Brennan

Let’s talk about this:

The Canadian provincial government pays millions of taxpayers’ dollars every year on research on education (Côté & Allahar, 2011). This research holds consequences for the way people are educated. This means the way they see world, the jobs they work, the lives they lead, and the hills they climb. Translation? It is some of the most important research that can be conducted and it must be taken seriously.

I woud argue that more focus needs to be placed on the who, what, where, when, and why of this research, and what kind of impact it is having on policy.

Some of the issues at hand…

HEQCO is an arms-length agency of the Ontario government whose mission is to bring evidence based research to policymakers (HEQCO, 2013). An external report, published on the HEQCO website claims that “HEQCO is performing at the top level of international excellence” and that “the quality of the research and the quality of its communication are in a word, superb” (Whitehead, 2011). Research contracts are awarded to the team proposing the best value – which means cost of the research becomes at least part of the decision process. Might it be true that one gets what one pays for? It’s also not clear to what extent the research HEQCO conducts has any impact on policy being implemented. In the United Kingdom, for example, Gorard (2002) found that educational research is not translating into policy-making. If these claims are correct then an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money is evident.

Gorard (2002) also claims that many people that receive contracts for educational research experience pressure to produce results that will support a predetermined plan. These ‘shadow research communities’ (Côté & Allahar, 2011, p.53) “show signs of biases in producing research that supports the policies of those hiring them.”

I believe that educational research, all research, has to be utterly independent from the needs of policy makers and/or other political pressure groups. Without this independence the results of the research are undermined.

There’s got to be a way.

I agree with Côté and Allahar (2011) that a new journal devoted to public policy issues should be launched in Canada. It should be financed with government money to ensure tax dollars are being well spent and it should be independent of government influence to help avoid bias.

There also needs to be a tighter relationship between research, policy, and practice (Lubienski, 2013). I cannot think of more important subject matter for a country than policy in education. This policy is the steering mechanism for the direction the country will head into future storms and calm waters. Good research has to be conducted and it needs to underpin policy.

From there practice needs to follow.

References
Côté, J. E., & Allahar, A.L. (2011). Lowering higher education: The rise of corporate  universities and the fall of liberal education. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.
Gorard, S. (2002). Political control: A way forward for educational research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 50(3), 378-389.
HEQCO. (2013) About us. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/en-CA/About%20Us/Pages/Home.aspx
Scott, J., Lubienski, C. & DeBray-Pelot E. (2009) The politics of advocacy in education. Educational Policy, 23(3), 3-14.
Whitehead, Lorne A. (2011, September). Review of the higher education quality council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Whitehead%20Review.pdf

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12 thoughts on “The research that is being conducted on education…a few brief words…

  1. I enjoyed reading this Marc, some interesting ideas here. I would like to know what consequences educational research has on the way people are educated? An alternate lens to consider would be that despite research being readily available, does it really influence the way we are educated and is it implemented into practice so readily and easily? If this were the case, published research studies would be quite effective in influencing educational improvement, innovation and reform.

    In relation to funding, I agree that research should be funded through government although I would like to know what options can be implemented to avoid biases from influencing this work? I’m not sure I believe that being independent of policy makers and/or other political pressure groups would be the best answer. There must be a balance between opposing influences to ensure that the needs of the provincial parties who are providing funding as well as the needs of “the institutes of higher education in Ontario and other stakeholders” are also being met (Whitehead, 2011). Being completely independent of influences can be problematic as there is also a potential of moving towards certain biases and creating further fragmentation between policy makers, political parties, and research groups. Although it is a complex relationship, there needs to be collaborative push and collective compromise between opposing influences to work towards balancing the needs of all parties involved.

    References
    Whitehead, Lorne A. (2011, September). Review of the higher education quality council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Whitehead%20Review.pdf

  2. Hi Michael,
    Thank you for the response.
    You wrote: I would like to know what consequences educational research has on the way people are educated?
    The Ministry of Education underpinned their Credit Recovery Program in the high schools with (unreferenced) research that implies teachers should avoid giving students low grades or failing them because this might discourage them from trying harder the next time (Côté & Allahar, 2011).
    Two days ago I was at a workshop where the presenter briefed us on some research about some students that were recommended for an applied math stream in high school, took their teachers recommendations, and failed their first year college math courses years later. Another group of students were recommended for the applied stream, went against these recommendations and entered the academic stream, and succeeded at a higher rate than the first group in their first year college math courses years later. As a result of this study she suggested that we recommend all students who are currently at an applied level in math to the academic stream in high school when we submit our recommendations next week.
    I know I have given two secondary school examples here but remember, secondary problems lead to tertiary problems (Côté & Allahar, 2011).
    Your second question: Does research really influence the way we are educated and is it implemented into the practices so readily and easily?
    Wiggers (2014) didn’t feel research had a huge impact on policy. His slide said grocery store customers, friends at cocktail parties, and family members have a bigger impact on our policy makers than the research.
    To that I would add, and I am speaking to teaching methodologies here, if it doesn’t work, research be damned, teachers aren’t going to use it. How many times have teachers heard how great some new procedure is and how ‘all’ the research supports it and then they hear about it and in two seconds they think to themselves “yeah right!” The method is going to either cost them an arm and a leg in terms of their time (which they have no more to give), or it will be completely impractical in terms of classroom management.
    That said though I have heard of some great methods that are backed by empirical research that work like a charm that I use every day. So to answer your question I think research counts but I really think, especially in education, it needs to be empirical research.

  3. Interesting post Marc. In my opinion, I think one does get what they pay for in this situation. In a research class I took last term we talked about Stats Canada for example. They have the big bucks required to produce such a large sample. The larger the sample size, the higher the cost, as well as higher the validity. For this reason, I would put more faith in trusting Stats Canada over a more typical research study.

    You stated: “Gorard (2002) also claims that many people that receive contracts for educational research experience pressure to produce results that will support a predetermined plan. These ‘shadow research communities’ (Côté & Allahar, 2011, p.53) “show signs of biases in producing research that supports the policies of those hiring them.”

    In response to that, I’d admit that this is mainly why I’m so skeptical. Tamburri (2011) states that “With a modest budget of $5 million (reduced from $8 million in 2009), HEQCO conducts and pays for, often in partnership with the province’s colleges and universities, evidence-based research around three major themes: access to postsecondary education, quality of education, and the accountability of institutions. It also publishes policy papers and provides advice to Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.” This statement concerns me. Is it possible that HEQCO even skews the data to be more favourable to the colleges and universities it works with?

    Marc, I agree with you in regards to the need for better research in the field of education. Canada’s future depends on the upcoming generation which includes an extremely high proportion of citizens with bachelor and graduate degrees. We need to be making sure that our education system is adequately preparing them/us. Thus, better research is needed in order to achieve this.

    Reference:

    Tamburri, R. (2011, April). New kid on the block. University Affairs, 22-25.

  4. Thank you for your reply Cassi,

    You got me thinking about Statistics Canada. I know little about the role it plays in informing policy decisions or how well it puts our tax dollars to work.

    I should mention that when Gorard (2002) claimed that many people that receive contracts for educational research experience pressure to produce results that will support a predetermined plan he was referring to research done in the United Kingdom. Côté & Allahar were most definitely talking about Ontario when they talked about bias in educational research.

    You mentioned that you think we are getting what we are paying for, tax dollar wise, on educational research because Stats can surveys cost a lot, but you also cited that HEQCO has a five million dollar budget (reduced from eight million in 2009) (Tabmburri, 2011). What I struggle with is Dr. Wiggers’ feelings about HEQCO not having a huge impact on policy. If he is correct then does that mean five million dollars in tax payers’ money could be better spent? Your thoughts?

    Reference:

    Côté, J. E., & Allahar, A.L. (2011). Lowering higher education: The rise of corporate universities and the fall of liberal education. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.
    Gorard, S. (2002). Political control: A way forward for educational research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 50(3), 378-389.
    Tamburri, R. (2011, April). New kid on the block. University Affairs, 22-25.

  5. Interesting topic and post Marc. Unbiased research is important for producing accurate and useful change. However, what if the challenge of translating education research into policy changes and ultimately into lived experiences extends beyond the potential flaws in research? Whether the insight comes from research, stakeholder consultation or program evaluation, the challenge of translating a specific report into policy at provincial or institutional levels and then transforming local culture still exists. Research examining policy implementation in the k-12 and related sectors can offer some insights, along with research on institutional culture (e.g., Trowler & Bamber, 2005) or universities as organizations (e.g., Reid and Marshall, 2009).

    References:
    McClellan, J. (2010). Leadership and complexity: Implications for practice within the advisement leadership bodies at colleges and universities. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 7, 32-51.
    Trowler, P., & Bamber, R. (2005). Compulsory higher education teacher training: Joined-up policies, institutional architectures and enhancement cultures. International Journal for Academic Development, 10, 79-93. doi: 10.1080/13601440500281708

    • Thank you for the response Carolyn.
      When Scott, Lubienski, and DeBray-Pelot (2009) mentioned that there must be a tight relationship between research, policy, and practice they left me wondering how to keep this relationship tight.
      I agree with Trowler and Bamber (2005) that policy gets aimed at individuals because policymakers see individuals as “the prime movers and shakers in social change (p. 84). But then the change doesn’t happen or it happens only in part….the culture seems to have a way of shifting back to status quo. The institution often doesn’t budge. I think of School Boards’ policies on DPA… we all know that DPA happens in every classroom right?
      Suggestions for change to become an actuality:
      1. Decide how to introduce educational development policies amongst the array of other, incongruent policies
      2. Have a well-developed and appropriate theory of change and put it into practice; amend it if outcomes suggest it isn’t working as hoped
      3. The individual, the department, the institution, and the discipline should all be entry points for stimulating change. Policy cannot put the entire burden on the individual. (Trowler & Bamber, 2005).
      References:
      Scott, J., Lubienski, C. & DeBray-Pelot E. (2009) The politics of advocacy in education. Educational Policy, 23(3), 3-14.
      Trowler, P., & Bamber, R. (2005). Compulsory higher education teacher training: Joined-up policies, institutional architectures and enhancement cultures. International Journal for Academic Development, 10, 79-93. doi: 10.1080/13601440500281708

      • Carolyn, just a few more points I came across in the Reid and Marshall article (2009) and the McLellan article (2010) that I think will help with creating institutional change:
        1. The more complex a change the less you can force it (i.e. What Is required is committed action on the part of all those involved (this theme is present in McLellan’s article as well). A supervisor who is trying to force the result will often find their efforts counter-productive)
        2. Recognizing that each department (or faculty) of an institution is different and that it is important to adapt a program that is sensitive to the specific needs of each department (or faculty).
        References:
        McClellan, J. (2010). Leadership and complexity: Implications for practice within the advisement leadership bodies at colleges and universities. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 7, 32-51.
        Read, A., & Marshall, S. (2009). Institutional development for the enhancement of research and research training. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(2), 145-157.

  6. No problem Marc! I think there’s usually if not always bias in any type of research unfortunately. I agree with you about HEQCO. If they are not having much impact on educational policy anyways than I think our tax dollars are certainly better spent elsewhere. It’s a tricky situation though because I do like HEQCO. Something must be done so that they have a bigger say and bring about positive change.

  7. Marc, I appreciate that you’re exploring the topic of evidence-based policy.You said, “Good research has to be conducted and it needs to underpin policy.” Building on a thread within Carolyn’s post, I’m curious whether you are assuming research evidence can and should influence policy? As Black (2001) suggests, “If we accept a linear relation, then the value of research will inevitably be judged in terms of its impact on policy.”

    Black, N. (2001). Evidence based policy: Proceed with care. BMJ. 12(7307):275–278. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1120888/pdf/275.pdf

  8. I wanted to follow up re: the Stats Can comment – is bigger always better? Stats Can studies serve a particular purpose -but given that education is provincially funded and governed, might a national (and large) study miss the granularity needed to understand what is going on at a provincial level? I think it’s important to see what research is being used for what purposes – and to choose accordingly.

  9. Yes – large scale stats frequently help paint a background context to help situate the work – the kind of research I does tends to be smaller scale studies – but I like to map out which sandbox I’m playing in.

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