Tips and Cautions for Educators and Policymakers From Influential Scholars

Frederick M. Hess
4 min readFeb 28, 2023

Last month, we ran the 2023 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings. The exercise involves identifying 200 of the nation’s most influential education scholars and provides a useful chance to take their temperature on some big questions relating to research, practice, and policy. In that spirit, we reached out to the Edu-Scholars with a handful of short queries — and this is what they had to say.

We asked the scholars what book has most impacted their thinking over time. Four books got multiple mentions: David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia; Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher; James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935; and Rick Hess’ Spinning Wheels (full disclosure: that’s me).

We asked about the most interesting or illuminating academic article on education they’d read in 2022. While a wide array of work got mentioned, with popular topics including pandemic effects and early-childhood education, it seemed noteworthy that no study garnered multiple mentions (even if I’ve no clue what to make of that fragmentation).

The Edu-Scholars were also asked which study from the past decade has had an outsized impact on education. Once again, no single study received multiple mentions, though the most frequently cited body of work was Raj Chetty’s research on social mobility. Meanwhile, about one-third of respondents offered no answer to this question, and perhaps the most memorable response was one Edu-Scholar’s plaintive lament, “I wish there was one.”

Asked for one piece of advice they’d offer practitioners or policymakers when it comes to putting research to work, the Edu-Scholars’ three most common suggestions were to: speak with a researcher to get more insight before translating their findings into action, read critiques or counterarguments before acting, and understand the difference between one’s context and the context in which the study was conducted.

As one respondent put it, “They should keep in mind that applying research is not like following a recipe from a cookbook. It is important to understand how external conditions in communities, the skills and capacities of educators, and politics will influence how a policy is implemented.” Another Edu-Scholar usefully urged, “Continuously monitor and assess the effects of any new policy or program. Even if there is good evidence that something worked in a different context, it may not work in your context. You cannot simply ‘implement’ — the process of continual monitoring, assessment, and reevaluation is critical.”

We asked about tips for explaining research findings to a general audience. The three most common were the importance of using simple language, the value of using anecdotes as well as data, and the need to appreciate how research fits within the larger scheme of things.

Some of the advice was admirably blunt. One Edu-Scholar advised, “You need to write in plain, jargon-free English. If you don’t, nobody will listen to you. Nobody.” Another suggested, “Realize that nobody has read your article. Nobody knows about your expertise or really cares. Write for the public, learn from editors.” And a third urged, “Don’t make strong policy recommendations unless you’re really sure, because there are usually about ten logical leaps between your study and any policy recommendation. Think of your job as informing people and helping policymakers think more clearly about the issue — not telling them what to do.”

I was curious if the Edu-Scholars had any advice to offer young researchers. The most common was the need to talk to teachers, students, and community members; to appreciate the value of incremental change; and to not aim for fame. As one respondent put it, “Realize most changes in this domain are incremental at best. Don’t assume you can do miracles. You have two main masters: academic stuff which doesn’t really impact policy much. And impacting policy, which doesn’t count in academia.”

Finally, we asked about whether there are particular topics that draw too much or too little attention. The respondents flagged three topics as particularly overexamined: charter schools, standardized-test results, and (far-and-away) issues related to equity and race. The interesting twist, as you might imagine, is that issues of equity and race were also termed perhaps the most underexamined.

Two quotes illustrate this tension pretty effectively. In response to what topics are overexamined, one scholar wrote, “DEI issues. And I say this as someone who does work in this area — but the work is really shoddy and is rarely evidence based. Lacking evidence hurts issues of equity and justice. I’m concerned.” Meanwhile, a different Edu-Scholar identified DEI and racism as an underexamined topic, saying there’s a need for more attention on, “The reality of INTENTIONAL racism in educational settings. Stop attributing racism to implicit bias.”

I’ll close with this. Perhaps the oddest thing, from where I sit, is how utterly absent questions of education technology were in all of the responses. Nowhere, across questions about impactful research nor over- or underexamined questions did anyone touch on issues related to virtual learning or new technologies. After a pandemic during which remote learning was ubiquitous and pretty awful, in the midst of the ChatGPT frenzy, and amid concerns about online misinformation and cyberbullying, I was struck that the nation’s education research community just doesn’t seem that interested in any of this. I’m not sure what to make of it. But it’s a phenomenon I’ve noted before and one that deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

Please note that answers were lightly edited for grammar.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.