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Improving Research-Policy Relationships: The Case of Literacy

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Abstract

Problems in the relationship between research and policy are often bemoaned, perhaps especially so in education. Researchers complain that the knowledge they generate is not read, understood or used by policy-makers, a problem that tends to be attributed to the malign influence of politics. Policy-makers, on the other hand (in which category I include politicians as well as senior officials) complain that research does not speak to the important problems they face, or is too qualified, inconsistent or unrealistic to be a useful basis for their work
Improving Research-Policy Relationships:
Lessons from the Case of Literacy
Paper prepared for the OISE/UT International Literacy Conference:
Literacy Policies for the Schools We Need
Toronto
November 8, 2003
Benjamin Levin
Faculty of Education
The University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, MB
R3T 2N2
Ph. (204) 474-8285
Fax (204) 474-7564
E-mail: Ben_Levin@umanitoba.ca
Improving Research-Policy Relationships: The Case of Literacy
Ben Levin, University of Manitoba
Abstract
The relationship between research and policy, a long-standing concern in education, has
taken on even greater salience in recent years. Researchers feel that their knowledge is
not given sufficient weight in policy or practice while policy-makers feel that they cannot
get timely assistance with the questions of importance to them. The picture is not as bad
as often claimed; in fact, research has had strong impacts on policy in education over
time. A main barrier to greater impact is the reality that research and policy are different
contexts for knowledge production and use, each producing its own incentives,
constraints and pressures. Stronger links between research and policy are possible if
there is greater understanding of the realities of each context and the links that can exist
between them. Politics and policy-making are not well understood by those who are not
directly involved, so this paper focuses largely on the nature of government and policy-
making, and how research might influence that process more effectively with specific
reference to issues of early literacy.
Acknowledgments
Much of the work on which this paper was based was done as a Visiting Scholar for the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2002-03. I thank Marc
Renaud, President of SSHRC, for the opportunity to undertake this work, and many other
colleagues at SSHRC and elsewhere who helped me think about these issues. I also
thank many colleagues in the Government of Manitoba and other governments during my
time as Deputy Minister, who helped deepen my understanding of the realities of that
world. However all ideas, interpretations and errors are solely mine and nothing in this
paper should be taken as representing the policy or opinion of SSHRC or any other
organization.
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Why and How Research Affects Policy1
Problems in the relationship between research and policy are often bemoaned,
perhaps especially so in education. Researchers complain that the knowledge they
generate is not read, understood or used by policy-makers, a problem that tends to be
attributed to the malign influence of politics. Policy-makers, on the other hand (in which
category I include politicians as well as senior officials) complain that research does not
speak to the important problems they face when they need it, or is too qualified,
inconsistent or unrealistic to be a useful basis for their work.
The argument is an old one, but it has taken on renewed importance in recent
years as research has come to occupy a more prominent role in public discourse around
policy in many areas. The growing interest in research is supported by several
developments in contemporary societies. More educated populations are more likely to
be interested in what research might have to say. Programs in the media give increasing
mention to research in various fields, even if the reporting of research may not always be
as careful as might be wished. The phenomenal growth of the internet and its increasing
use by a wide range of people as a way to get current information on many different
topics is another illustration of this interest. Governments are more likely than used to be
the case to try to make the claim that their policies are supported by evidence. Research
conjures up images of science and of objectivity, and thus has a particular kind of appeal
to the public imagination.
In part the interest in research can be linked to a growing awareness of the
complexity of the main problems that confront humanity (Homer-Dixon, 2000). Over the
1 What follows is a summary of ideas that are developed more fully in Levin, 2003a.
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last few decades we have learned that issues of long-term significance are what Rittel and
Weber (1973) called ‘wicked problems’ – they cannot be avoided and yet have no
obvious solution. Under these circumstances we need to learn more if we are to be able
to address these issues with any chance of success.
These trends apply to education, but education also has some particular
characteristics that affect the role that research can play. Education is value-laden
activity, inextricably connected to our broadest aspirations for society. It embodies a
wide range of purposes that are not always mutually consistent. People agree on
educational goals only at the most general level, with many conflicts not only about goals
but about desirable means of carrying them out.
Education also has less history of basing policy and practice on research than do
some other fields, although it seems likely that each policy area thinks that other areas are
doing better in this regard (personal communication with John Lavis, Canada Research
Chair in health knowledge transfer, McMaster University). Many factors contribute to
the particular status of research in education, including the relatively low status of
teaching as an occupation, the relatively recent arrival of education as a field of study in
the university, and the many different disciplines that contribute to the field (Lagemann,
2000). Because everyone has gone to school, professional knowledge about education is
not seen to be as esoteric or specialized as knowledge in fields such as health or law or
engineering.
In recent years there have been pointed criticisms of education research in several
countries including Britain (Hargreaves, 1996; Hillage, 1998), France (Prost, 2001),
Australia (McGaw et al., 1992), and the United States (Coalition for Evidence-Based
4
Policy, 2002). To give a rather extreme example, a website closely linked to the U.S.
Education Department (www.w-w-c.org/about.html) notes: “Our nation’s failure to
improve its schools is due in part to insufficient and flawed education research. Even
when rigorous research exists, solid evidence rarely makes it into the hands of
practitioners, policy-makers and others who need it to guide their decisions.” While
Canada has not had the same level of public debate about education research, discussions
among education ministers and senior officials in which I have participated evidenced
much unhappiness with the contribution of research, or at the least a strong sense that the
contribution should be stronger than it is.
Despite the relatively poor reputation of education research one can point to many
instances where research has played an important role in shaping policy and practice.
Some examples include:
- Understanding the importance of children’s early years in shaping their later
success and the possibilities for interventions;
- Realizing the importance of parental and family interaction to children’s
development and education;
- Supporting the moving of children with disabilities from segregated settings into
regular schools and programs;
- Learning about the number of students dropping out of school and the reasons for
their doing so;
- Understanding the importance of assisting adults with low levels of literacy;
- Realizing both the importance of and difficulties in operating high quality
professional development for teachers;
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- Recognizing that much short-term training for the workplace has very weak
payoffs;
- Revealing ways in which second language learners can best be helped to integrate
into a new language and society; and
- Appreciating the link between good nutrition and ability to concentrate and learn.
Research in Australia (DETYA, 2000) and in the U.S. (Biddle & Saha, 2002) has found
that very large majorities of school principals and policy-makers believe that their work
is actively informed by research, though in a variety of largely indirect ways.
Efforts to improve links between research and practice are not new. The ERIC
system and the network of regional educational labs in the U.S. have had a longstanding
focus on issues of research impact, with considerable success in many areas. However
partly as a result of the current criticisms, new interest in the role of research in education
has developed (Davies, 1999; Levacic & Glatter, 2001), and various initiatives in this
direction have been undertaken in recent years in education. The National Education
Research Forum in England (www.nerf-uk.org ) and the various initiatives under that
umbrella are an excellent recent example of a thoughtful effort to improve the role of
research. In Canada important efforts have been made by SSHRC through programs such
as the Community-University Research Alliances or the Initiative on The New Economy
and associated joint ventures with agencies including the Council of Ministers of
Education, as well as changes in the regular research grants programs.
If research in education has in fact had substantial impact, why is there so much
criticism of it? Part of the concern grows from the frequent assumption that there
should be a direct line between research and subsequent policy and practice such that
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research findings point unambiguously to what governments, educators, or learners
should do. There are many important questions of education policy and practice where
research does not yet provide much guidance. Most of education is concerned with
producing significant and lasting change in how people think or behave, yet on the whole
we do not know very much about how to do this, either in schools or in other settings.
Policy-makers are often faced with difficult alternative choices around how to use
resources; again, research often has little to say about what choices are best. There are
good reasons, conceptual and practical, for these limitations in research—to mention two,
the issues are often very complex and the total education research effort is comparatively
small—but the lack of clear direction is understandably frustrating for users.
At the same time, researchers have their own set of complaints about
governments. Research in education is not well funded anywhere in the world, and
certainly not in Canada (OECD, 2002), which makes it hard to produce substantive,
reliable and timely results. Researchers may also feel that their work is disregarded if it
does not fit the predispositions of decision-makers, or that it gets distorted to meet other
political or bureaucratic needs. Like the criticisms of policy-makers, these also have
some truth to them.
Understanding the problems in the relationship of research to policy is easier if
one recognizes that researchers and policy-makers inhabit very different worlds, with
different sets of incentives, constraints and pressures that shape their work. Although
these two worlds do connect with each other in a variety of ways, they are also linked by
another sector consisting of various people and organizations that are interested in using
research to shape policy and practice. A model of research use, then, might usefully start
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with the idea of three different contexts—the context of research production, the context
of research use, and the various mechanisms that act as links between these two settings.
This conceptualisation is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1
Elements of Research Impact
TIME
Context of research
production
academic and
applied
Funders of research
Contexts of research
use
Policy – politicians,
advisers, bureaucracy
Practice – leaders,
p
ractitioners, clients
Mediators
Media – mass,
p
rofessional
Think tanks
Lobbyists
Policy entrepreneurs
Popularizers
Social context – current issues, ways of thinking, popular prejudices,
p
reoccu
p
ations
,
conventional wisdo
m
8
An important implication of this conceptualization is that the gaps and
misunderstandings between researchers and users do not arise from people’s faults, but
from the realities of their contexts. Of course improvements can and should be made, but
these efforts should start from a realistic understanding of why people act as they do and
what kinds of changes might be possible.
It is also important to recognize that the terminology around research impact is
quite inadequate. The wording of ‘producers’ and ‘users’ is itself problematic in that it
implies a one-way flow of information and a passive role on the part of ‘users’. In reality
people move back and forth among these three contexts, the relationships run in multiple
directions, and so-called ‘users’ are not just passive recipients of the work of researchers
but active constructors of knowledge and action in their own setting.
I will not in this paper talk about the context of research production, which is
shaped largely by the mores, rewards and habits of the academic world. I want to focus
instead on the world of government policy, which is where, in Canada, most of the
important decisions about education policy are made.2 To speak effectively and
meaningfully to policy-makers, researchers must understand something of that world.
The next section of this paper gives some description of the world of policy, followed by
some suggestions on how the links between research and policy could be strengthened.
2 School boards are another important site for education policy making. The political dynamics around
school boards are different from those I will outline here in some important respects, which is why I do not
focus very much on them.
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The Dynamics of Government3
A fundamental starting point is that the use of research – indeed, knowledge use
in general – in government can only be understood as part of the overall process of
government and especially the influence of politics. In my experience politics is an
intensely rational activity. Politicians are no more self-serving or indifferent to
knowledge than are researchers or civil servants. However the premises behind political
rationality are not necessarily the same as those governing education or research.
Understanding the use of research in government requires an understanding of the factors
that affect elected governments. Although these descriptions arise largely from my own
experience, they are also supported by a substantial literature on the dynamics of
government (Levin, in press a).
1. Governments have limited control over the policy agenda
Although every government comes to office with a set of policy ideals or
commitments, the reality is that much of what governments attend to is not of their own
design or preference; governments have to be in whatever businesses people see as
important.
Government agendas are certainly shaped in part by political commitments, party
platforms, and the views of key political leaders. Governments do try to keep a focus on
meeting the commitments they made when elected. However they are also influenced,
often to a much greater extent, by external political pressures, changing circumstances,
unexpected events and crises.
3 A much fuller description of the nature of government and its relationship with education is developed in
my forthcoming book, Governing education (Levin, in press a).
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As soon as a government is elected, various groups try to influence its agenda in
accord with their own. This is in many ways the essence of the political process. It
means that politicians are constantly bombarded with requests or demands to do things,
stop doing things, increase funding, decrease funding, pass legislation, repeal other
legislation, and so on. As people are better educated and better organized, the number
and intensity of the pressures on politicians has risen. Nor are people necessarily
reasonable or consistent in their demands.
Unanticipated developments can also affect political agendas. When the
unexpected happens, whether an economic downturn, a natural disaster, or some other
new development, governments must respond in some way, even if that means taking
attention and resources away from other activities that were high on the priority list. As
Dror put it, there is “at any given moment a high probability of low probability events
occurring. In other words, surprise dominates” (1986, p. 186). September 11, 2001
remains a perfect example of how many plans are rendered null by something unusual
and unpredictable.
While some of the pressures on government relate to very important, long-term
issues, others may concern small short-term details. However one cannot assume that the
former will always be more important than the latter. Sometimes very small items can
turn into huge political events. For example, a single instance of a problem can
undermine an entire system that may actually be working reasonably well, as those
working in health care or child welfare or immigration or corrections know only too well.
Governments are particularly susceptible to issues that take on public salience
through the media (Levin, in press b). As most people get their information about public
11
events from the mass media, an issue that is played up in the media often becomes
something that a government must respond to, even if the issue was no part of the
government’s policy or plan. Media coverage is itself motivated by a number of
considerations, but long-term importance to public welfare is not necessarily one of them
(Edelman, 1988). Indeed, novelty is an important requisite for the media in order to
sustain reader or viewer interest, so that governments are likely to be faced with an ever-
changing array of issues supposedly requiring immediate attention.
Insofar as research becomes an issue on the public agenda, it will necessarily be
of concern to governments. The results of research, whether on a new health treatment or
results of education tests or new data on crime rates can often become part of the public
policy agenda, sometimes to the surprise of many including the researchers.
2. There is never enough time
Governments are in some sense responsible for everything. Government leaders
have to make decisions about a vast array of issues – from highways to the environment,
from financial policy to education, from health to justice systems. And, as just noted,
they are likely to face an unending set of pressures on their energy and attention. A
cabinet member not only has responsibility for her or his own area of jurisdiction – which
can itself be enormously complicated and fraught with difficulties – but is also supposed
to participate in collective decision-making on a wide variety of other matters facing the
government. Each issue has to be considered not only in terms of its substance, but from
the standpoint of public attitudes and political implications. The nature of political life is
12
such that there is no respite from these demands. A politician may leave her or his office,
but almost every social encounter will also lead to new pressures or requests.
There is, consequently, never enough time to think about issues in sufficient
depth. Some sense of this pace is captured in the TV program The West Wing, except that
the real situation is generally more messy even than this portrayal, with more
simultaneous demands and pressures being handled. Senior government leaders, both
politicians and civil servants, work under tremendous time pressures, in which they are
expected to make knowledgeable decisions about all the issues facing them within very
short timelines and without major errors. This is impossible but it is nonetheless what we
expect from our leaders.
The result is that important decisions are often made very quickly, with quite
limited information and discussion. This is not because politicians necessarily like
making hurried or uniformed decisions, but because this is what the office requires.
The pressure of multiple issues is also one of the reasons that policy
implementation tends to get short shrift. As soon as one decision has been made there is
enormous pressure to get on to the next issue. Even with the best intentions, it is hard to
get back to something from months ago to see how it is progressing, since so many other
issues have meanwhile arrived on the doorstep demanding immediate attention.
3. Politics and policies are both important
Everything in government occurs in the shadow of elections. Every government
is thinking all the time about how to improve its prospects for being re-elected. Some
people find this cynical, but it is hard to see what else politicians could do. After all,
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concern for re-election is at least partly about doing what most people want, and
presumably we elect governments for precisely that purpose. A government that does not
satisfy people will be tossed out most of the time. The British cabinet minister in the TV
series Yes Minister understandably reacted with dismay when his chief advisor, Sir
Humphrey, called for taking a courageous stand, since this meant doing something
unpopular. We vilify our politicians for ignoring our wishes, so we can hardly be
surprised if they go to great lengths to try not to offend
At the same time, governments are often genuinely concerned about the results of
their actions and policies. They do want to fulfill their commitments to voters, and
programs and policies are the means of doing so. Moreover, a mistaken policy can create
very large political costs – think of water quality in Ontario.
There is, to be sure, a cynical side to the concern with public perception in that
governments sometimes do attempt to manipulate public opinion, give the perception of
action even when they are not doing much, and focus on image rather than substance.
Rhetoric is a vital part of politics (Levin & Young, 2000), and government statements of
intention cannot necessarily be taken at face value. Governments can use research as one
of the vehicles to support their rhetoric, something that may become more common as the
prominence of research increases.
4. People and systems both matter
Much of what a government does is shaped by the individuals who happen to
occupy critical positions, regardless of their political stripe. Any political party is likely
to contain a wide range of views and positions; in statistical terms, the within-group
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variance in ideas in a party is likely to be quite a bit larger than the variance between one
party and another. So the individuals who come to hold certain positions are important.
Some ministers carry quite a bit of weight in Cabinet and can get their way on important
issues, while others have difficulty getting their colleagues to support any major policy
thrust. Some politicians are intensely pragmatic and willing to reshape policy in light of
changing pressures or public preferences, while others are deeply committed to particular
values and work hard to promote and implement a course of action over years even in the
face of substantial opposition. Some Cabinet ministers or key political operatives
understand and use research while others may be ignorant or even dismissive.
The nature of government systems also matters. The roles of various departments
and central agencies, the relative power of individual ministers vis a vis central
government, the way in which issues come to Cabinet and the kind of information that
accompanies them, are all important in shaping the way policies are constructed and
delivered. Some governments or agencies have given a prominent role to research units.
For example, in Canada the Applied Research Branch of HRDC and Statistics Canada
have both played important evidence-based policy roles. Where such functions are
institutionalized there is more potential for research to be available when needed and in
an appropriate form. Insofar as research has public credibility it will also tend to have
more cachet with politicians.
5. A full-time opposition changes everything
Imagine how your work might change if there were people whose full-time job it
was to make you look bad. Imagine also that they could use less than scrupulous means
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of doing so and that there was a tendency for people to believe their criticisms ahead of
your explanations. Might that not change the way you went about your work?
Yet that is precisely the situation facing every elected government. Oppositions
are there to oppose. They will work hard to show how government actions are wrong,
venal, or destructive. In doing so they will not always be particularly concerned with
balance or fairness in their accounts. Research is also used by the opposition to support
its political stance, which is one reason governments are not always anxious to do or
publish empirical work. As a minister once said to me in justifying a refusal to release
research reports done by my unit, “You don’t ask a dog to fetch the stick you use to beat
it.”
While many people decry negativity in politics, politicians use this strategy not
necessarily because they like it, but because they think it works. If conflict is what
attracts public attention, then conflict is what politicians will create, since public attention
is what they must have. A politician friend once told me that he got far more publicity
and recognition from a certain public relations gesture that he knew was rather narrow
than from any number of thoughtfully articulated policy papers, so the public relations
gesture would continue. The problem is that over time an emphasis on the negative can
certainly increase voter cynicism about politics and thus worsen our politics.
6. Beliefs are more important than facts
Researchers are often convinced that policy ought to be driven by research
findings and other empirical evidence. From a political perspective, however, evidence is
only one factor that shapes decisions, and it will often be one of the less important
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factors. I have had politicians tell me on various occasions that while the evidence I was
presenting for a particular policy might be correct, the policy was not what people
believed, wanted or would accept. As Bernard Shapiro, whose extensive experience
includes a stint as Ontario Deputy Minister of Education, put it, "All policy decisions are
made by leaping over the data." (Remarks at the Conference on Policy Studies,
University of Calgary, May 10, 1991)
For politicians, what people believe to be true is much more important than what
may actually be true. Beliefs drive political action and voting intentions much more than
do facts. Witness the strength and depth of public support for various measures that
clearly fly in the face of strong evidence. Many people continue to believe in capital
punishment as a deterrent for crime, or that welfare cheating is a bigger problem than
income tax evasion. Others are convinced that amalgamating units of government saves
money, or that free tuition would substantially increase accessibility to post-secondary
education for the poor, or that retaining students in grade will improve achievement even
though in all these cases a strong body of evidence indicates otherwise. Where beliefs
are very strongly held political leaders challenge them at their peril. As Marcel Proust
put it,
The facts of life do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished…
they can aim at them continual blows of contradiction and disproof without
weakening them; and an avalanche of miseries and maladies coming, one after
another, without interruption into the bosom of a family, will not make it lose faith
in either the clemency of its God or the capacity of its physician. (Swann’s Way)
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Just as problematic is that people do not have to be consistent in their attitudes,
either across issues or over time. As Arrow pointed out long ago, public preferences do
not necessarily line up in rank order (1970). The same people who demand more services
from governments may also demand lower taxes. Those who in one year argued
vehemently in favor of reduced government spending might the following year be just as
impassioned when pointing out the negative consequences of the reductions. People can
and do hold inconsistent beliefs, but political leaders must do their best to accommodate
these inconsistencies in some way.
Not everything in government is subject to all these constraints. The reality is
that given the number of issues any government must handle at any time, only a few will
be high enough on the political or public agenda to get significant time and attention from
ministers and political staff. Many activities of government are not of much public
interest unless something dramatic happens. The scope for research to influence policy
may be as great or greater for issues that are not high on the political radar screen.
However as soon as an issue gets onto the public agenda, it will be of interest to
politicians and all the problems noted will apply. On most other issues civil servants will
play an important or even decisive role in shaping what a government does. Politicians
and civil servants live in quite different environments (Levin, 1986). As a result,
although they sometimes work closely and well together, at other times there can be
substantial distrust with each party feeling that the other is ignorant and wrong-headed.
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Knowledge Use and Agenda Setting
Despite all these constraints, governments do set agendas and take actions.
Kingdon (1994) described political agendas as being created from the intersection of
political events, defined problems and possible solutions. When the right mix of the three
comes together, political action follows.
Political events might include such elements as timing in the electoral cycle,
changes in individuals in key roles, or unusual events that create a political requirement
to respond. Defined problems can come from many sources. Many groups, including a
whole range of lobby and service organizations, work actively to create the perception
that a particular issue requires political action. The media can play a critical role in
noting, or even advocating, some condition as constituting a problem. One can easily list
such diverse examples as spousal abuse, taxation levels, pollution or international trade as
issues where active campaigns were undertaken to convince voters and politicians that
some action was needed.
Definition of a problem also requires the generation of solutions. People are
much more disposed to act on problems when they see the possibility of doing something
that is feasible and will make a difference. Solutions are advanced by the same set of
actors who try to define problems. In fact, much of the promotion of problems is done in
order to generate support for a policy solution (Stone, 1997). At the same time, people
who may share the view that something is a problem can also differ enormously in regard
to the best solution. Everyone would agree that establishing good literacy skills is a vital
goal, but the strategies people advocate for achieving that goal differ considerably, from
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stressing particular reading problems to focusing on family literacy and early childhood,
to believing that more testing is the answer.
Research plays a part in defining both problems and solutions. However its role
in both cases is often mediated through third parties. Research comes to policy-makers
indirectly, through the civil service, through the media, or through the work of people and
organizations who make it their business to try to influence policy by using research.
These latter are sometimes known as knowledge brokers or policy entrepreneurs
(Mintrom, 2000).
Third parties recognize what many researchers do not – that the impact of an idea
depends on its public salience more than on its empirical validity. That is why the main
route for research to have impact is through its entry into the ongoing public debate on
ideas and policies. If we look back at the list of areas where research has had a positive
impact, it is clear in every case that the impact occurred over many years, and that
research mattered not because a minister read a study and acted on it, but because ideas
that were once seen as outlandish gradually came to be seen as desirable or even as
conventional wisdom.
That process does not happen by accident. It is almost always the result of
sustained effort by many people who realize that to affect public policy you have to enter
into the political process in some way. Usually this work is not done by researchers but
by policy advocates. Sometimes researchers themselves take on the role of advocate but
more often they either rely on others or they simply provide the work – even
unknowingly – that is adopted and used by others, with or without their approval.
Doing policy relevant research, or trying to link research to policy has its dangers.
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In French the same word is used for policy and for politics, a useful reminder that policy
is part of the political world. As a struggle for power, politics is often a particularly
ruthless business. Naïve researchers – or even those who are not so naïve – can get badly
burned when they find their work being used to support a political position or argument
that they find inappropriate or even disreputable.
Implications for literacy policy
The ideas developed in this paper suggest some general implications for the
relationship between research and policy, and some particular slants for literacy policy.
Generally speaking, the description above suggests several lines of action to improve the
links between research and policy. One line is to improve the research production side so
that research findings are communicated more clearly and effectively in a variety of
ways, and so that policy-makers are more aware of what research is being done and what
conclusions are being drawn. Some indication of steps in this direction has been given
earlier, but much more could be done—a subject for another paper. A second line
involves building stronger links between researchers and policy-makers through a whole
variety of means, including events such as this conference. It is also important to ask
who the key users of research would be, and what are the barriers that prevent stronger
connections?
We tend to focus on what researchers should do differently, but even if Canada
produced the best research in the world, many of our key user organizations, including
governments, have very limited capacity to find, understand and apply the research. For
example very few Canadian school boards have any research use capacity and many of
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the umbrella provincial and national organizations, such as those of school boards or
school administrators, also run shoestring operations. Finally, there is inadequate
appreciation of the role of third parties in the research impact process. Those interested
in better links between research and practice need to recognize that working with third
parties is a critical part of the effort.
Literacy issues present some particular challenges and opportunities in linking
research to policy. Literacy remains a very high profile policy concern in Canada, and
one that is by no means limited to education. There is strong continuing interest in
learning more about how to improve literacy levels. However this will not happen simply
by researchers telling policy-makers what we have learned.
Although researchers are gradually achieving a kind of consensus on many
aspects of literacy education, we should not expect the public or our political leadership
to be aware of or understand this consensus any time soon. As already mentioned, it can
take years for research results to become widely known and accepted even under
relatively good conditions. These conditions include active champions and proponents
on the issue who are well connected or effective in the public and political arena as well
as synergies between the ideas being proposed and existing or emerging conventional
wisdom. The further from current thinking a new idea is, the harder it is to get purchase
in the public mind and therefore to have an impact on policy.
In the case of literacy, the situation is difficult for at least three reasons. First,
twenty years of the ‘reading wars’, with heated debate over issues such as phonics vs
whole language, have left many Canadian parents as well as policy-makers feeling
confused about what might be true. Since much of the confusion was stirred up, or at
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least exacerbated, by vigorous if not vicious arguments among researchers, there is less
willingness to believe researchers when they now claim to have reached agreement on
some of the main points of contention. The heated debate in the United States over the
recent National Reading Panel report (e.g. Coles, 2003; cf. Pressley, this conference)
shows that these issues are by no means resolved in any case.
Second, because early literacy involves important questions about the future of
children, it is also a subject that will rouse strong emotions. People will be reluctant to
take a gamble with something new even if it is widely recognized that current practice is
not satisfactory, because the cost of mistakes is so high. New research findings will take
time and careful dissemination before they will be credible. Governments are likely to
move very cautiously on this front until and unless they sense broad public support for a
particular course of action. Moving public opinion in this area will also not be easy and
will require sustained effort by a range of actors. Much of the discussion of these new
results will have to occur through third parties such as parent groups and organizations of
educators.
Third, research on literacy comes from a variety of disciplines and perspectives,
ranging from neurology to psychology to pedagogy to architecture. The Canadian
Learning and Literacy Research Network (www.cllrnet.ca), a very important vehicle for
Canadian research in this area, brings together more than 100 researchers in a wide
variety of fields who do not necessarily agree even on the important questions let alone
on the answers to them. All these disciplines can make important contributions to our
knowledge, but the multiplicity of perspectives is confusing to lay audiences.
23
Research impact is also affected by the degree of structure that already exists in a
given area of policy or practice. The better established current practices are, and the
larger the network of groups and organizations tied into those practices, the harder it will
be to change them and, generally, the more reluctant policy makers will be to try.
Elementary teaching, for instance, is a longstanding practice that is difficult to change
even when a substantial effort is made (Earl et al., 2003). Literacy advocates will need to
think about the areas where interest is likely to be high and resistance relatively low.
Two areas connected to literacy development seem to be promising candidates for
policy action. One of these is early childhood. We have an increasing understanding of
the powerful impact of early childhood experience on literacy (developed more fully in
Levin, 2003b). Aspects of children’s experience such as their nutrition, health and
housing are important to eventual literacy but currently substantially disconnected in
policy terms from efforts to improve literacy. Early childhood also offers institutional
and political possibilities for change that are in many ways more promising than those
related to schools. Because the sector is less developed, there is much less institutional
inertia and resistance to experimenting or to changing policies and practices in this area.
Public acceptance of the importance of equity in early childhood care is also likely to be
stronger than in some other areas of education. The broad interest in work done by the
OECD (OECD, 2001) shows the growing importance of early childhood in national
policy, an importance that is due in no small measure to effective promotion of the
findings of research (e.g., McCain & Mustard, 1999).
Another area that seems highly attractive is family literacy efforts, which seem to
be both important and not very controversial. The efforts that have been made in this
24
direction are still quite small in scale despite quite a bit of suggestion that this is an area
where the return on investment could be quite high (Earl et al., 2003). Nor are there yet
well established organizations and patterns of provision that might inhibit a bolder
approach.
There are undoubtedly other areas in which there is strong potential for research
to shape policy. The key thing is for researchers to think strategically about where the
chances are greatest to influence policy, and to focus on those areas.
Conclusion
One should not be unrealistic about what is possible in the relationship between
research and policy. Research will never replace politics, nor should it. Although
research findings are important, we also know that they are not immutable, and that in
some cases yesterday’s certain knowledge has turned out to be today’s reprehensible
practice. Research will never be more than one part of what political decision-makers
need to take into account in making decisions, and given a conflict between what
researchers say and what the population believes, the latter will almost always be the
winner.
At the same time, I remain an optimist about the potential contribution that
research can make to policy and practice in education in the near future. We are only
beginning to think about how this might be done and to try various strategies. Doubtless
some of these strategies will turn out to be unproductive, but over time we are almost
certain to learn more about what works under what conditions. With sustained effort
research can help improve policy and therefore outcomes for Canadian children and
25
families. Research may never be the complete guide to policy and practice in literacy or
any other area, but there is no doubt that it can play a more important role than it
currently does.
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29
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