What Should Public Scholarship Really Look Like?

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source – Green & Write – April 21, 2016


The Washington D.C. Convention Center. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Last week was the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and over 17,000 education researchers flocked to the Washington, D.C. Convention Center to discuss what can be done to improve schooling. The theme of this year’s meeting was “Public Scholarship to Educate Diverse Democracies”, and appropriately, one of the most frequent topics of discussion was how education research could be harnessed to better inform public policy. Why is it that researchers, who have so much expertise and knowledge, so often go unheeded by policymakers? What can be done to make public policy more “evidence-based”?

On this front, AERA President Dr. Jeannie Oakes devoted her presidential address to discussing the challenges of public scholarship and calling for researchers to make their work more accessible for those in power. It was up to researchers, she said, to descend from their ivory towers and bring their work into the public sphere, to embrace what Dewey called the “hurly burly of social policymaking.” According to Oakes, education researchers are partially to blame for the lack of evidence-based policymaking because education research has too often lacked a relevant policy component. It has also tended to be long on description and short on prescription. While researchers might know that certain education programs do not work, they don’t always know what could or should be done differently. This latter question is the one that most vexes policymakers, and it is one that is inescapably political and value-laden. “Politics, public opinion, and public perception” will always constrain the best efforts of researchers, Oakes said, and if researchers hope to overcome these things, they must pay attention to them and forge more consistent relationships with policymakers who inhabit that world.

Demand-Side And Supply-Side Criticisms

Oakes is certainly not the first person to raise concerns about the limited ability of expert knowledge to influence policymaking. These concerns have raged for decades in the ranks of social scientists, who generally sort themselves into one of two camps when explaining this phenomenon: demand-siders and supply-siders.

Demand-siders tend to blame policymakers for the lack of evidence-based policymaking. They believe that policymakers simply do not demand researchers’ expertise often enough and therefore remain ignorant of essential scholarship which could inform their work. Demand-siders attribute this to anti-intellectualism in government and a lack of governmental capacity to absorb research in the timely fashion needed to make most political decisions.

In contrast to demand-siders, supply-siders believe that researchers are the main culprits. According to them, policymakers are in fact interested in research findings, but researchers do not produce enough relevant research and have a poor understanding of how the policy process works. Moreover, researchers can be ineffective communicators and refuse to offer the kind of unequivocal answers that policymakers demand.

While differing in their diagnoses, both the demand- and supply-siders actually agree on a prescription. They believe the solution is simply to “bridge the divide” between researchers and policymakers – to improve communication between the two groups and diffuse research findings more widely. This is essentially what Oakes advocated.

A Different Solution

But this solution might be a little too simplistic, for one major reason. It mistakenly views policymakers and researchers as one-dimensional beings.  Policymakers are knowledge consumers and researchers are knowledge producers. But in reality, policymakers and researchers are both consumers and producers at the same time. Both are capable of receiving knowledge and of giving it. Researchers and policymakers may have different day-to-day responsibilities and concerns, but they do not truly inhabit different worlds, and their communication should not be limited to a simple barter of knowledge for power. The answer thus is not to bridge the divide between research and policymaking, but to foster shared identities between researchers and policymakers, to create a new breed of civic actors who are simultaneously thoughtful and political. In this way, creating a world where research influences policy on a grand scale is not simply a matter of running a new telephone line from the top of the ivory tower to the Speaker’s Rostrum in the House of Representatives.   Nor it is simply a matter of enrolling researchers in crash courses on people skills, or policymakers in night classes on the scientific method. Rather, research might only begin to meaningfully inform policy after broad sociopolitical and cultural changes have been made to ensure that the social distinction between researchers and policymakers is diminished.

This would also require researchers to give up a common assumption about themselves: that they know best what constitutes “real knowledge.” Such a mindset can only leave researchers politically isolated and generally disliked, and it is important for researchers and policymakers alike to acknowledge the value of different kinds of knowledge. Take for example the issue of Michigan’s crumbling roads. It does not take a social scientist’s expertise – with his highfalutin statistical models, complex sampling plans, data displays, and linguistic esoterica – to know that the roads are horrendous and in need of repair. Everyday citizens already know this from their daily commute. Experience can inform us more than a science experiment. The bigger question is what ought to be done, and ought is something that can only be legitimately determined by citizens, not just a cabal of experts.

Fortunately, citizens are capable of evidence gathering and social theorizing just as experts are. It is thus the job of researchers not just to convey knowledge, but to assist citizens and policymakers in their own acts of knowledge construction and theorizing. Sometimes citizens and policymakers might still get it wrong, but the important thing is that researchers have helped them think more deeply and clearly than they might not have otherwise.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.