Providing Good Information to Decision-Makers

With so many special interests competing for decision-makers’ attention, we believe philanthropy has an important role to play in making sure elected officials and other leaders have good information – both in the form of data and in firsthand accounts from the people their decisions affect.

Dr. Ruth López Turley is the director of the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), a component of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Unlike a traditional academic research institution, HERC is a “research-practice partnership” that seeks to improve the connection between research and decision-making, according to Turley.

“I got into this line of work because I thought that research mattered and it could be a useful tool for changing the world. Turns out I was very wrong,” she said. “Typically research doesn’t have an impact, unless you make an explicit effort to make it so – to make it actually useful. That’s the point of this partnership. That’s the issue we’re tackling head-on.”

Turley notes that the disconnect between the users and the producers of research is partially to blame for the persistence of disparities in education, despite so many investments in research on the issue.

HERC seeks to close the gap by working closely with the intended end-users of their research – initially Houston Independent School District (HISD) and now ten local school districts – by asking up front, “How will it be used? What’s the ultimate goal? Where are we trying to move the needle?”

HERC employed that strategy when HISD asked them to do an evaluation of their pre-K program to examine whether participation helped close the gaps in kindergarten readiness for economically disadvantaged students.

The evidence was unusually clear-cut: pre-K made a significant impact.

Turley was asked to testify before the Texas school finance committee in Austin to help advocate for more pre-K funding. Turley expected her strong research results to prompt immediate action on the part of the legislators.

It did not. The campaign for additional state funding for pre-K continues.

“That was my oversimplified view of how the world works,” she said. “Even when you don’t get the outcome you want, it doesn’t mean the research wasn’t used. We might still get the desired outcome several years from now. I’m learning that these decisions are not just a one-time thing – it’s iterative.”

She said she’s learned that there are many ways research can have an impact: not just to inform policymakers’ decisions, but to inform how they’re thinking about and conceptualizing issues.

HISD recently invited Turley’s team to make a presentation to their board on their research about decentralization, which gives principals a higher level of authority in decision-making, especially over school budgets.

“[Being invited to present our work] was really important to us,” she said. “[It’s] an example of us producing research and it actually getting used.”

Houston Endowment Recent Investments in HERC: $1,826,470 toward education research (approved 2015 – 2018)

Lindsay Sobel is senior executive director of Teach Plus Texas, a local chapter of a national effort to train exceptional teachers to advocate on behalf of their students and “tell their story with impact” in order to improve education policy and systems at multiple levels.

“We believe that is the lever that’s going to make a difference for the highest-need students,” she said. “If we want to make good decisions about our schools, we need to have the teachers’ perspective in the decision-making process.”

Nationwide, Teach Plus’s fellows have helped to shape state and federal education reform legislation.

Teach Plus is relatively new to Texas, having established a local advisory board in 2016 and launched the Texas Policy Fellowship in 2017. During the 2017 legislative session, the first class of Texas fellows testified 11 times in front of House and Senate committees of the Texas legislature, published op-eds, participated in legislative briefings, presented a policy brief to the Texas Education Agency, and held 70 meetings with legislators and their staff members.

One of the issues the Texas cohort of teachers chose to focus on was teacher preparedness. Data show that the highest-need students and students of color are more likely to have first-year teachers who may not be adequately prepared for the challenges of the classroom.

Sobel recalled one teacher’s story of a student, a refugee, who had never had a teacher who stayed through the entire schoolyear.

“He said, ‘If they’re going to quit on me, I’m going to quit, too.’”

Another teacher in the cohort told a story of a parent who approached him at the start of the school year and asked, “How long are you going to stay?” Her child had had five different math teachers over the course of one year.

Of the three bills the fellows chose to engage on related to teacher preparation, the two bills they supported passed, and the bill they opposed died in committee.

“Having teachers tell the story about one child in their classroom can make more difference than a ream of data,” Sobel said. “We have found when teachers speak up, policymakers sit forward and listen.”

And, she notes, that can have broad implications for the state’s 5.4 million students, most of whom face economic disadvantages

Houston Endowment Recent Investments in Teach Plus: $360,000 toward the participation of Houston teachers in the Teach Plus Policy Fellows program (2017)