Since its founding in 2008, the Research Alliance has carried out more than 50 major studies, undertaken by over 50 full- and part-time staff, in collaboration with a multitude of research partners at universities and nonprofit organizations across NYC and the country. We’ve conducted field work in hundreds of schools, interviewed thousands of educators and students, and administered more than 86,000 original student surveys (this is in addition to our work on the official NYC School Survey taken by nearly a million teachers, parents, and students annually). We have also supported work by other scholars, by building, maintaining, and providing access to a vast archive of data on NYC schools—which is among the largest and most comprehensive education databases in the country. We’ve shared findings through regular briefings and sense-making sessions with partners, as well as through public events, reports, and the media.
Over the next two months, I would like to offer reflections on some of the cornerstones of this body of work and on what value I hope it has added to efforts that advance excellence and equity in NYC’s public schools. In particular, I would like to offer perspectives on the following questions:
- How do we think about the relevance of our work, and what strategies maximize that relevance and the utility of the evidence we produce?
- Why does scientific rigor matter when conducting research aimed at informing education policy and practice?
In many ways, almost every decision we make as an organization and every piece of information we produce involves a struggle with these crucial questions. They lie at the heart of our effort to balance strategic priorities with available funding opportunities and research capacities. Ideally, we might prefer to democratize the priorities for our research portfolio and focus exclusively on questions that are most in demand and have the highest consequences for the largest number of stakeholders. This emphasis on stakeholder-driven priorities inevitably confronts resource constraints, staffing and partner capacities, and research feasibility. At the same time, an overemphasis on studies confined to the interests of funders—or to the interests and skills of researchers—runs the risk of missing what matters most to policymakers, practitioners, and communities. We work to strike a balance that advances as much meaningful, impactful research as possible.
Questions about relevance and rigor also provide guardrails for ensuring our work is collaborative and attentive to the needs of our audiences, while maintaining our commitment to independence and nonpartisan reporting. Particularly with hot-button issues, like closing low-performing high schools or the impact of aggressive policing, there is no shortage of anecdotes to support just about any policy position. What distinguishes the evidence the Research Alliance produces is our ability to make valid inferences about the impact of the initiatives we study and our transparency about the context, assumptions, strengths and limitations of those inferences—all of which lends credibility to our enterprise.
In short, the work of the Research Alliance has been a challenging and rewarding balancing act, one that I hope maximizes the use of evidence to promote excellence and equity in New York City’s public schools. I look forward to providing further reflections on these points in future posts.
James J. Kemple