TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

What it takes for research to grab the attention of policymakers

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We have always thought of the NCTQ Teacher Quality Bulletin (TQB) newsletter as an important vehicle for disseminating good research on teacher quality. In putting together a new issue of TQB, we ask ourselves what is most likely to grab the attention of our readers and what type of research policymakers in particular will find most compelling. Recently we came across this interesting study305 that we found intriguing and expect many of our readers—foremost the many researchers whose work we cover—will as well.

Looking at a survey of over 2,000 state and local education policymakers, Harvard PhD candidate Nozomi Nakajima asks the following questions: 1) Does all research influence policy equally, or are some types more compelling to policymakers than others? and, 2) How much do policymakers adjust their mindset in light of new evidence?

In the first part of the study, policymakers were presented with a pair of studies on the same topic but with varying design attributes and were asked to choose which they found more useful in guiding their policy decisions.

Nakajima finds that policymakers clearly deem research with certain design characteristics more persuasive. For example, they prefer studies with larger sample sizes and a larger number of sites (schools) as opposed to smaller scale research. They also show a marked preference for studies where the population studied has a similar racial and socioeconomic composition to that of their own jurisdiction.

Policymakers were then asked about their beliefs on a given education policy topic (i.e., "the effect of urban charter schools on student achievement"). Later, they were asked if they wanted to update their beliefs after being given a) no additional information, b) opinions of other policymakers, c) opinions of researchers, or d) more detailed research findings with information of research design.

Nakajima finds that the average policymaker is more likely to update their beliefs about a policy topic when presented with research findings, and even more so when presented with information not only on the findings, but also on the studies' design characteristics.

This groundwork sets important guidelines for presenting information to promote evidence-based policies:

  • Applicability is key. The answer to "how generalizable is this research, who is this research about, and how does it compare to my jurisdiction?" will be central to the policymakers' acceptance and implementation of research into policy.

  • Communicate what matters. In order to leverage how policymakers adjust their opinions on education policy based on research, synthesize not only the main takeaways of research studies, but also how researchers arrive at their findings and provide comprehensible details about the research design.