The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Network routers’: a new proposal to put education research into practice

In this network room, routers and switches allow  data centers to talk to each other. (Connie Zhou/Google)
Placeholder while article actions load

It’s no secret that there is a huge gap between education research and practice. Here’s a new proposal to bridge that gap, by Jack Schneider. an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. He tweets @Edu_Historian and is currently co-writing the Ed Week blog K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric.

By Jack Schneider

As an experiment, leaf through the pages of an academic journal like Educational Researcher or Teachers College Record; then take a teacher out for coffee and talk about life in classrooms. Or reverse the procedure by observing a few K-12 classes and then chatting with an educational researcher. In either case, what is likely to emerge is just how distinct from each other the spheres of research and practice are in education.

Explanations for the failure of research to affect practice are both numerous and compelling. In fact, reading across the literature on the topic, one is likely to conclude that research and practice in education are like similarly charged particles—destined to repel each other. Yet notable exceptions demand explanation. Why do some concepts bridge the gap between the research university and the classroom? What characteristics make such concepts unique? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we cultivate those traits more broadly in order to foster a more robust and productive relationship between what scholars write and what teachers do?

In my book From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, I offer a range of policy ideas designed to strengthen the connection between research and practice. And unlike many more theoretical visions, I believe that they are realistically achievable. I also think that the slate of proposals I offer is fairly comprehensive. But recently I conceived of one more, and it may be the easiest of them all to execute. Let’s call it the “network router” proposal.

My home wireless network is a marvel. Anyone connected to it with a computer can print, share files, and browse content on my television. They can even adjust the thermostat. But those seeking to access from outside the network must pass their requests through a single point: a network router.

In education, scholars and educators move through separate “home networks.” Within their networks, they possess significant levels of access. But those networks rarely communicate with each other. And we lack the equivalent of network routers to connect them. The result, then, is that each set of actors fails to tap into the resources of the other.

I live across the street from a K-8 school, and while I didn’t set out to be a router, I have become one. Without question, I still have a lot to learn in this role. But I find myself increasingly invested in the work. And over the past few months, I’ve found myself regularly relaying research to the school’s principal.

By establishing such informal partnerships, principals can significantly expand their school’s knowledge network. A principal preparing to hire new staff, for instance, might turn to her research router for scholarship on interviewing techniques, HR cycles, and the traits of effective teachers. When structuring professional development, she might ask what research has to say about the length, frequency, and content of successful professional development. Or when searching for a new reading curriculum, she might ask for a review of the evidence on available models. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Now, principals could conceivably do all of this themselves. But the average principal works 10 hours a day and is consistently faced with pressing political and managerial tasks (to say nothing of the increasing emphasis on instructional leadership). Principals can also be isolated from critical peers and left to act out both sides of a dialectic on their own. And additionally there is the issue of training, which for school leaders often does not include preparation in finding and vetting relevant research. Scholars, however, do this for a living, and many have wide-ranging interests that make them excellent potential point-people.

Of course, this kind of network passes information in both directions. So, while scholars can serve as routers connecting educators to the world of research, principals can serve a similar function—connecting academics to real school environments. For scholars, this promises not only greater relevance, but also opens possibilities for future research projects. And, perhaps most significantly, scholars will benefit tremendously simply from moving through K-12 schools on a more regular basis. Every conversation I have with a teacher or school leader teaches me something new and makes me a better scholar.

So how does a principal find a research router, or vice versa? Interested scholars might do as I did and send an email to a local school leader. The message might be as brief as “I’m here if you ever need me.” Or they might propose expanding upon an existing partnership between institutions—often forged through student teacher placements. On their end, principals might contact the chair of a college or university education department, declaring a general interest in connecting, and asking for the message to be passed along. Whichever party initiates, though, one point is worth remembering: proximity matters, and a shared geographical location can go a long way.

Principals, busy as they are, will be forgiven if they do not take the initiative. So I issue this call primarily to scholars. And while they have much to benefit professionally from this, such partnerships should also be understood as acts of citizenship. Too often we frame our civic duties as acts of rare occurrence—arising once or twice a year when we cast our ballots or serve on juries. But citizenship is far greater than that. It is a responsibility we fulfill by bringing our talents to bear on our communities, to strengthen the polis, and to improve the lives of its members. Insofar as we can do that through our schools, then, those of us who can help strengthen organizational capacity should do so in whatever small ways we can—as members of networks that grow more powerful when they link together.