Education Research and the Media

Spreading the word about good research is a 21st century imperative.

Posted May 23, 2016

Post by Sharon L. Nichols, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at UT San Antonio. She is coauthor of Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (with D. C. Berliner, Harvard Education Press, 2007) and the editor of an upcoming book, Educational Policies and Youth in the 21st Century: Problems, Potential, and Progress (Information Age, in press).

I read with interest Dr. Schutz’s reflections on his experience at the inaugural Psychology in the Public Interest Leadership Conference held by APA. It is a testament to the importance of this issue that the American Psychological Association convened a conference dedicated solely to helping scholars think through how they can better communicate their work to the broader populace.

The statistics he quotes on the proliferation (or lack thereof) of social science research is alarming. That such an infinitesimal percentage of social science inquiry is shared with a broader audience is eye opening, to say the least.

Dr. Schutz’s point that educational researchers have “a lot to offer when it comes to helping solve many educational problems” is an understatement given the current educational climate. I would emphasize that it is more urgent than ever that we inform the voting populace about what it means to educate our increasingly diverse and complex student body. For example, how do we give students skills to navigate our rapidly changing world? What policies are necessary to protect and support LGBT youth? What do we know about our responsibilities for educating immigrant youth? What are some of the best practices for students for whom English is a Second Language? What are some best practices for managing academic and behavioral challenges in the classroom?

The imperative to spread the word about what we know about teaching and learning is even more pressing in light of the constant attacks on public schools and their teachers. The relentless narrative that schools and their teachers are “failing” have fueled support for policies that are subsequently punishing and controlling (e.g., Nichols, 2013; Nichols & Berliner, 2007). And, profit-obsessed business leaders have capitalized on these attacks and are steadily appropriating the discourse of what it means to educate (Ravitch, 2014; Schneider, 2016) as they take over education as the next entrepreneurial frontier. For example, business-run (profit) charter schools are proliferating at a rapid pace, and siphoning off much-needed funds from neighboring schools while they perpetrate a disturbing trend of re-segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. Allowing policymakers, business leaders and the media to control the narrative about education—without input from educational scholars—has potentially devastating consequences for our teachers and students.

But, how did we get here? How did we become a society that accepts institutional racism and classism that is being perpetrated by an increasingly unequal education system? Indeed, there are many forces at play, including economic, social and political (see Glass, 2008 for one such argument). And yet, perhaps our absence at the (social) media table is partly to blame. By not expanding our reach, have we somehow failed to educate citizens about the complexities of teaching and learning? Has our invisibility contributed to a voting citizenry who is susceptible to the simplistic messages of “No Child Left Behind” and “Every Student Succeeds”?

I think a great deal about what it would take for us, as a community of scholars, to play a more integral role in the public discussions of education. As Dr. Schutz appropriately worries, “Science is too complex to be watered down into simple sound bites necessary for the general public.” This is indeed true. As scholars we are trained to employ rigorous methods, think carefully about problems and potential solutions, and offer answers that are couched in well-groomed caveats and qualifications. This type of work does not necessarily translate well into easily packaged and sold sound bytes.  

Thus, one tempting reaction to this call might be for educational psychologists to do just that—to bend their research findings simply to fit a media narrative. Although this may work in some instances, we also must stay mindful about the appropriateness of such decisions. I encourage educational psychologists not to lose sight of the goals of their scholarship. Some scholarship has a goal to inform theory (not practice) and therefore it is okay that it is not media “worthy.” At the same time there is scholarship that does have potential to inform practice, but methodological constraints make that leap too big or complex for media-audiences.

Instead, the time seems ideal for educational psychologists to forge a path of scholarly inquiry that has as a primary goal dissemination and impact. Indeed, educational psychologists are perfectly positioned to rigorously and carefully identify and examine current, complex educational issues with the goal of helping to shape practical and policy-oriented solutions (e.g., how to support learning in the 21st century; how to support social-emotional learning; how to help the growing number of students who live in poverty). This might be research that is grounded in pragmatism and local contexts whereby researchers in partnership with community and school-based collaborators work together to construct projects that address/solve problems. For example, my colleagues here at UTSA are engaged in collaborative projects with local elementary school teachers to help them strategize ways to manage students’ problem behaviors while at the same time they collect data that might better inform them (and potentially broader audiences) which strategies are successful and which are not. These types of projects would translate well to broader media audience. Of course, this is just one idea. There are likely many others. 

We must do a better job getting our ideas out. But we must also do a better job selecting problems for which our research can highlight useful solutions and implications for policy. There are many paths to do this. I hope more of us try.

This post and its companion (here) are part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President Nancy Perry. The series, centered around her presidential theme of "Bridging Theory and Practice Through Productive Partnerships," stems from her belief that educational psychology research has never been more relevant to practitioners' goals. Perry hopes the blog series will provoke critical and creative thinking about what needs to happen so that researcher and practitioner groups can work together collaboratively and productively. Those interested can learn more—and find links to the full series—here.


Glass, G. V (2008). Fertilizers, pills, and magnetic strips: The fate of public education in America. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Nichols, S. L. (2013). (Guest Editor). Theory into Practice Special Issue: Educational Policy and the Socialization of Youth for the 21st Century, 52(3).

Nichols, S. L., & Berliner. D. C. (2007). Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Ravitch, D. (2014). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. NY: Vintage.

Schneider (2016). School choice: The end of public education. NY: Teachers College Press.

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