Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How Policymakers Define “Evidence”: The Politics of Research Use in New Orleans

Note: This blog is adapted from an under-review article generated from research funded by the William T. Grant Foundation’s program on Understanding the Acquisition, Interpretation, and Use of Research Evidence in Policy and Practice. This blog was written by Priya La Londe. A further analysis of the below topic will be available in a forthcoming publication by Huriya Jabbar, Priya Goel, Elizabeth DeBray, Janelle Scott, and Chris Lubienski. Please contact Huriya Jabbar with any questions.

Public school systems across the U.S. have seen unprecedented expansion of incentive-based reforms, such as teacher performance pay, school choice, new governance forms, and alternative pathways to teaching and leadership. New Orleans, with its virtually overnight transformation of schooling post-Katrina, is perhaps the reform hotbed, a key incubator of the market principles that underpin reforms. Since Katrina, education reforms in New Orleans have emphasized incentives, choice, competition, and privatization, as well as new governance forms and alternative pathways to teaching and leadership (Buras, 2011). Advocates of incentive-based reforms point to improved aggregate test scores in New Orleans as markers of success and are promoting the model at the national level. As New Orleans-style reforms spread in the absence of strong supporting research, we ask what types of evidence are policymakers using to justify and expand these reforms, and how do they access it?

To answer this question, we build on previous conceptions of research utilization to examine how intermediary organizations broker research on what we call “incentivist” policies (Lubienski, Weitzel, & Lubienski, 2009); policies such as school choice and teacher incentive pay. In this new policy terrain, intermediary organizations link the supply and demand for research evidence, and they work in support of, and in opposition to, these highly contested education policies. We interviewed key district and state policymakers, as well as representatives from intermediary organizations in the area, who, we argue, are also shapers of policy.

We find that, in light of scant empirical evidence on the New Orleans reforms, policymakers primarily used personal anecdotes to justify their positions and explain the success of reforms. They also relied heavily on Education Week and other online media sources to translate research, especially blogs that aligned with their perspectives,. Peer-reviewed research was seldom used. When it was used, it was typically passed to policymakers via an echo chamber of intermediary organizations or personal contacts. Furthermore, we find that rather than being inundated with data and reports, as we commonly perceive policymakers at the national level to be, state-level policymakers in Louisiana did not receive much research or evidence directly. They did not believe they were seeing, much less being inundated with, reputable research; when they did receive information, it came from representatives at intermediary organizations that they worked with, or from individual researchers with whom they had a personal connection.

Such findings, at the very least, complicate traditional notions of research utilization among policymakers. We hope the findings shed light on what Louisiana policymakers should, going forward, institute as they weigh the effects of the New Orleans school reforms: an independent, credible research entity.


Buras, K. L. (2011). Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism: On the Spatial Politics of Whiteness as Property (and the Unconscionable Assault on Black New Orleans). Harvard Educational Review, 81(2), 296–331.

Lubienski, C., Weitzel, P., & Lubienski, S. (2009). Is There a “Consensus” on School Choice and Achievement? Advocacy Research and the Emerging Political Economy of Knowledge Production. Educational Policy 23(1), pp. 161-193.

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