An Independent Research Consortium

As an education researcher, I value and respect the role education research can play in shaping policy decisions. I wholeheartedly support the creation of an independent research consortium to study education in the District of Columbia. However, I do not believe it belongs in the Office of the DC Auditor (ODCA), even for an “incubation period.”

DC should leverage the Auditor’s Office to examine our education system more thoroughly. The auditor should play an essential role in making sure that quality education data exists, is managed with integrity, and is made available for research and oversight purposes. Asking the Auditor to also incubate a research-practice partnership is outside of the scope of its role and does not fulfill the 2011 National Research Council recommendations for a continuing program of evaluation of education reforms in DC. The Auditor’s Office managed the grant for that initial evaluation, but the research itself was conducted by a team of renowned researchers and housed at the National Academies. The report authors recommended an “infrastructure for ongoing research and evaluation of its public schools that is independent of school and city leaders” (p.156). The Auditor’s Office is hardly independent from Council leadership.

The DC region is home to world class research institutions and we should leverage the talent of researchers at local universities and think-tanks to launch a research-practice partnership that will increase the knowledge base and provide analyses that can inform future policy decisions. In Chicago, New York, and Baltimore education research partnerships are housed at universities and the research agenda is co-created by researchers, education leaders, policy makers, and community members. The DC Council should allocate funding in the FY2019 budget for a truly independent research consortium, housed outside of government and should request proposals from research institutions in the city to identify a qualified host for this essential work.

Rigorous research can evaluate education interventions, examine the implementation of various policy initiatives, and provide thorough analysis of education practices that can inform decision-making by various education and government actors. I believe that District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools will benefit from an external research agenda that will evaluate the multitude of initiatives they have undertaken to improve education outcomes for DC students.

However, even the most rigorous research has limitations. Creating an independent research entity will not be a “silver bullet.” Evaluation studies will not be able to clearly tell our policy makers “do this, but not that.” Formative research on interventions may provide insights in how to adjust implementation, but summative studies of outcomes will tell us how we did only after the fact. The best research takes time. The most recent study from the well-respected University of Chicago Research Consortium provides findings on the closure of 49 Chicago Public Schools in 2013. It is a rigorous mixed-methods study with five clear policy recommendations and it was released five years after the closure decisions. None of these are flaws in education research; they are realities that must be considered in the purpose and function of research-practice partnership.

A strong, independent research consortium will benefit the District’s education system, but it alone will not fix what ails us. We need to ensure that all agencies and elected officials with responsibility for education are doing their jobs, thoroughly and with fidelity. The role of “watchdog” is ideally suited for the Auditor’s Office.

DC needs an independent research consortium. It also needs a watchdog. It should have both – and they should not reside in the same place.

Jessica Sutter