The Importance of Equity and Community in Thoughtful Innovation and Evaluation

July 7, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Importance of research and development (R&D) in education: The increased funding for R&D in education, similar to other federal agencies, is crucial to identify effective educational practices and ensure wise investments in students. Randomized controlled trials are seen as a valuable tool for this purpose.

  • Need for community involvement in research: The article highlights the importance of involving communities in research design and implementation to ensure it is culturally relevant, avoids past ethical missteps, and builds trust.

  • Tension between research and common sense: Skepticism towards research and a preference for “common sense” approaches in education. Though research provides valuable insights into “why” things work and facilitates broader support for educational interventions, it must intimately involve the groups it is researching from the start.

  • Balancing innovation and equity: Educational innovation must be pursued with a focus on equity and community involvement. Rebuilding trust requires transparency, collaboration, and prioritizing the lived experiences of those most affected by educational inequities.

My heart raced with excitement and anticipation as I stepped on stage for an engaging panel discussion with the White House Initiative for Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans in mid-June. To my surprise, in front of an audience of distinguished education leaders, policymakers, students, and community leaders at Chicago’s Malcolm X College—a symbol of civil rights—I experienced a profound lesson that thrust me into a whirlwind of self-reflection.

Why Reimagine Education Now?

The impact of the pandemic on learning and mental health, coupled with emerging developments in artificial intelligence, has ushered in a new era of innovation in education. Because of this inflection point, some see this moment as an opportunity to reimagine education. So my question is, how can we ensure that this reimagining leads to equitable outcomes for all students? Although calls to shake up the “status quo” are tantalizing, doing so thoughtfully and systematically is essential to avoid wasteful spending in the long term and to understand what actually works for students, why it works, and how to replicate it to scale.

The Case for Increased R&D in Education

Making a giant leap forward in accelerating equitable opportunity must be grounded in solid research–guided by randomized control trial evaluations–and I was determined to share this vision as my moment to speak arrived. To me, the game plan is simple. Expand federal and state R&D budgets in education so we can:

  • Conduct a thorough analysis to learn what works and why.
  • Develop frameworks and guidance on best practices.
  • Provide incentives for pilot programs and expanded implementation.
  • Provide technical assistance to adapt these frameworks to the local context [This step is critical so that school learning improvements are not published in a research journal that collects dust].
  • Finally, assess what is happening across the landscape and disseminate new implementation insights and learnings.

I shared Saga Education’s work with high-impact tutoring as an example of this approach. I called for an expansion in the R&D budget and capabilities of the U.S. Department of Education, pointing out that there is a precedent for this in other federal agencies, like the Department of Agriculture or the military, which spends 15% of its budget on R&D. Currently, the U.S. DOE spends less than 1% of its budget on R&D. We need strong, bipartisan Congressional engagement to learn from organizations demonstrating the merits and need for an increased R&D budget for education to ensure we are making wise investments in our students.

After I finished my comments, I looked around at the shifting expressions in the room and immediately felt a sense of unease. 

The Importance of Community Involvement in Research Design

Then Carol D. Lee, the President of the National Academy of Education, renowned for her work in advancing opportunity for Black Americans for over 50 years, picked up the microphone, looked at me, and said that we have to be careful with studies because often, those who develop them have agendas and do not involve the community in their evaluations. To my dismay, she continued by saying, “We don’t need a study on tutoring to know it works,” as some audience members laughed.

A second panelist doubled down on the skepticism about the need for evaluations, calling on the audience to go back to fundamentals and follow “common sense” because we “already know” what works best for teaching students.

My mind started to race as I tried to process and understand their perspectives. I recognized my significant oversight. Many instances in history exemplify unethical research conducted on Black Americans that resulted in substantial harm and eroded trust in research agendas—the Tuskegee syphilis study, the Simian Virus polio vaccine contamination, and too many others.

I was also disappointed that I did not consider this more before I shared, demonstrating how fragile the pursuit of equity is and how important it is to ensure that it is truly at the forefront of everything we develop in education. The paper “Why Community Engagement Matters in School Turnaround” highlights how federal programs like the School Improvement Grants (SIG) often failed to include meaningful community engagement, which could have mitigated many adverse outcomes. How can we expect students to thrive if the tools we give them are not tailored to their needs? Organizations like Innovate Public Schools are leading the charge in empowering parents to ensure that policies designed to protect students do not inadvertently harm them.  

It was important to reconcile these ideas, grounded in real experiences. 

“Yes, we need to do much more to involve the community in the development of studies. Following common sense is a good start,” I said. “Conducting thoughtful experiments gives us an opportunity to unpack why things work and creates the conditions for potential bipartisan support. Otherwise, we end up in positional battles on how to best support students.”

Building Trust Through Collaboration and Transparency

As the event ended and I shook the hand of Alexis Holmes, the executive director of the initiative, and my fellow guests, it dawned on me that a considerable amount of trust had been lost in research. Intentional involvement of the community early on in the development of research agendas is an essential part of restoring that trust and developing solutions for communities, with communities. Organizations like the Advanced Education Research & Development Fund (AERDF) are developing the types of approaches that mitigate these challenges. They employ a research approach designed to address critical educational challenges through innovative and evidence-based solutions. Their approach involves engaging with educators, policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders to understand the key issues affecting students and schools and emphasizing collaboration with a range of partners to ensure the solutions developed are practical, scalable, and sustainable.

Towards Equitable and Effective Educational Solutions

While innovation and rigorous research are vital for advancing education, they must be pursued with a commitment to equity and community involvement. Trust, once eroded, takes time and intentional effort to rebuild. As allies in this work, prioritizing transparency, collaboration, and the lived experiences of those most impacted by educational inequities, we can develop more effective and inclusive solutions. Moving forward, let’s ensure that our efforts in educational research and development are not only scientifically sound but also ethically grounded and community-centered.

AJ Gutierrez is an education leader and social entrepreneur deeply committed to fostering equal educational opportunities. As a co-founder of Saga Education, he has played a key role in the organization’s growth, helping it gain recognition for its innovative approach to helping districts implement evidence-based high-impact tutoring models during the regular school day using technology and human capital.