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Rush to relevance: Conducting research to improve policy and practice

Randall F. Clemens

“We need research to be more relevant” is a common clarion call in education. Most recently, John Easton, Director of IES, released a video for AERA in which he talks about different initiatives to improve relevancy.

During one of my first Ph.D. courses, Bill asked us about the three major responsibilities of academics: research, teaching, and service. In particular, he wondered about teaching, something that is too often overlooked at prestigious universities. As someone who just left the high school classroom, I boldly proclaimed—in a way only a first-year Ph.D. can—that all professors should be required to teach, and to teach well. Students pay a lot of money and deserve more than someone who views teaching as a chore to be completed before doing important work. As Bill pointed out then, and I have thought about since, academics have different skill sets. Some are unbelievably talented teachers, others researchers. Let’s propose the best possible scenario: Young scholars receive effective mentorship and professional development and work at universities that support and reward teaching and learning. Even then, some will never be effective teachers. What’s my point? Bold proclamations often fail to account for important nuances.

Just as I wanted all celebrity researchers to be all-star teachers, I think, at a certain level, all research should be relevant. But, the rush to relevancy has a few troubling side effects. First, it ignores the value of various forms of research. A new set of guidelines illustrates the types of methodologies—namely experimental and quasi-experimental—that IES favors (and funds) to produce relevant research. Large-scale, experimental studies are important. If I want to understand how growing up in a low-income neighborhood effects social mobility, neighborhood effects studies provide compelling, significant findings. What else do they provide? A lot of unanswered questions. The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) study, funded by HUD in the 1990s, was an innovative randomized experiment. Researchers sought to understand what happened to low-income families when they received housing vouchers. Scholars are still arguing about the study’s effects on variables like educational achievement, employment, and health. Even the best studies fail to capture the complex and dynamic social processes at work in low-income neighborhoods. While a life history of one or an ethnography of sixty may not generalize, they can provide valuable findings. Understanding social issues requires sophisticated, complimentary methodologies.

Second, the rush to relevance may diminish academic freedom. Foundations and think tanks like and support trendy issues. Schools of education like grant funding. Inevitably, these factors lead to subtle (or not-so-subtle) nudges to Ph.D. students and early career faculty: “Yes, you are free to study whatever you want, but we hope it will be relevant and also generate funding.” Considering fewer and fewer tenure-track positions, the pressures are magnified. Some scholars maintain balanced research portfolios, examining both mainstream and non-mainstream topics. But, even in those circumstances, we diminish the vibrancy of national debates by settling into familiar paths. 

Third, and related to the above point, relevance relies on ever-changing interests. Last year, we talked about MOOCs. This year, we are talking about Common Core. Too often, scholars sacrifice their own interests to pursue those of others. I want to be clear here: I am not arguing against forward-thinking scholars or the study of emerging, innovative issues. Rather, policy windows open and close quickly. Thinking of the most pressing, deeply rooted issues in education, neither scholarship nor meaningful reform benefit from that same hectic agenda. Instead of racing to relevance and the allure of fame and funding, researchers ought to use their own experiences and expertise to help define what is and is not important.