Why Don’t Policymakers Read Research? Actually, They Do: An Interview

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“Why don’t policymakers read educational research?”

This is a question I hear a lot in academic circles. In fact, bemoaning this fact on Twitter led me to a fabulous conversation with Shree Chauhan—who told me that, in her experience working with policymakers, they do read educational research and want to read more, and that we in academia could make that much easier to do.

Chauhan (see full bio below) is an education entrepreneur who also manages education and health policy for a national civil rights organization. She has worked in the federal education policy arena for nearly a decade and was kind enough to answer some questions for me based on her experiences. Our conversation, summarized below, highlighted the need to bridge gaps between the worlds of academia, policy, and advocacy organizations.

1. How do we get policymakers to read academic research?

Chauhan points out that, as well all know, policymakers are busy, busy, busy, so the more concisely we can sum up our work, the better.

“In a congressional office, any staff member is dealing with 7 or 8 issues, with education being one of 10 big things that are weedy and difficult. Research is usually written using jargon-filled language that many people don’t understand. If you bring in a 40 to 50 page paper, most may not be able to consume it. So go deep with your research and know exactly what you’re doing, but be able to break it down in a page… even find a good graphic designer to actually make it visually appealing and easy to understand.”

2. What kind of research do policymakers find most convincing and useful? 

I’d assumed folks on Capitol Hill would prefer something with lots of of numbers, graphs, and data. While Chauhan affirms that numbers are important, she urges us not to forget the human side of politics as well:

“In a policy audience, it’s not just about the quantitative numbers. Remember, policymakers work for a particular constituency. If you’ve done research that applies to members of their constituency, they can put a face to the story. Human stories matter. The numbers are important, but the human element is also part of convincing someone…. People are more likely to support a policy when they can relate to someone. When they know someone it affects.”

3. Where should we start?

Personally, having no direct experience in politics, I asked Chauhan where a researcher with some relevant findings might even begin to interact with the policy world.

“A good place to start would be your own member of congress—you are their constituent, so that’s a great place… Also, see who introduces bills on what topics. Congress members won’t bring up issues that they don’t care about.”

congressChauhan pointed me to congress.gov, where you can enter simple search terms to see all of the current legislation on any given topic. You can see who’s sponsoring a bill, its congressional committee, and what stage the bill is at in terms of passage. Not only will you find bills you support (sponsored by people you should probably know), but you’ll also find bills with which you ardently disagree (whose sponsors you should probably also know). If you have research that informs the debate on either side, here’s your chance.

4. What Other Organizations Might be Doing Similar Work?

If this sounds like an ordeal, you’re not alone. According to Chauhan, there are likely many advocacy organizations already doing the work you aim to do.

“Think about what advocacy organizations are affected by what your research says. Lobbying congress in partnership with an advocacy organization is far more effective than you’d be on your own…. We’re always looking for new ideas.”

But why wait until you’re finished the study? Chauhan recommends building relationships with these organizations from the get-go.

“I don’t know how people are coming up with [research] questions, but I have so many questions I want answered. I’m searching for specific types of research and I’m thinking, “Where is it?” So before you even write the paper—do the partnerships ahead of time. See if anybody else wants those questions answered, and why not actually answer them in partnership?”

5. How does one find organizations to partner with?

“At the federal level, look up hearings at the committee level and see which organizations have submitted statements for the record. This will give you a good idea of the organizations that care about this issue… I would also go to regulations.gov and do a search for your subject matter to see the individuals and organizations that have submitted comments. Often, with these comments there are e-mail addresses attached to the comments.”

Chauhan says she gets emails every day from individuals, think tanks, and  civil rights organizations, but that she’s never come across a message from an education researcher.

Who are you sending your research to?” she wonders, “Who’s reading it? If you have a study that shows effects, why aren’t you sending it to a policy office? Who’s holding onto it? Don’t just let your work gather dust until someone goes out and finds it in a journal.”

Here, I think we’ve tapped into an issue within the incentive structures of academia, which I’ll discuss in a later post. But in the meantime, for those passionate about getting their research out there, I hope this interview generates some ideas on where to start. Many thanks to Shree Chauhan for her time and valuable insights. Everyone else—It’s time to start partnering, writing, and getting your work out there!

Feel free to comment below, or visit the blog’s Facebook Page.

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon

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Shree Chauhan Full Bio

Shree HeadshotShree Chauhan is the Founder and CEO of Parents in Partnership, an education startup organization that empowers parents to lead positive changes in schools and communities. An education thought leader with a decade of experience, Shree began her career as a 6th-grade English teacher in Miami-Dade public schools where she collaborated directly with parents and families to improve the academic outcomes and lives of her students. Her time in the classroom guides Shree’s vision for Parents in Partnership, and her current advocacy and policy efforts.

As a senior policy advisor for a national civil rights organization, Shree counsels civil rights principals, community leaders and elected officials throughout the nation on PK-16 education issues. Shree’s areas of expertise include family engagement, Common Core State Standards and accountability. Shree also helps manage the social media presence of Young Education Professionals (@YEPNational), a national network of education professionals with chapters in 11 cities.

Prior to joining the civil rights movement, Shree worked in the Department of Education’s policy office, advised Senators Bennet and Harkin on education issues and guided policy efforts for the Data Quality Campaign.

Shree earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications from the University of Miami and a Master of Public Administration degree from American University. She is a native Floridian and a proud Washingtonian.

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