Civic Engagement Panel Features David Figlio, Cynthia Coburn, Matt Easterday

Civic Engagement Panel Features David Figlio, Cynthia Coburn, Matt Easterday

In a panel discussion for Civically Engaged Graduate Students, a new Northwestern student organization, SESP professors David FiglioCynthia Coburn and Matt Easterday presented their views on how to be most effective at civic engagement. Models of Engagement” on February 6 offered an audience of approximately 30 graduate students a range of views about connecting research to practice.

During initial presentations, the professors described their research and background. Figlio explained his focus as an economist on education policy. His background growing up in in poverty in Baltimore helped to give him “a lens into the inherent unfairness in the education system,” he said. He maintained that public policy “is to get people to do things they might have done,” and economics is a useful lens because it’s all about incentives.

Coburn, a new SESP professor, went to low-income public schools in Philadelphia and became politicized around education at Oberlin College. Later when she worked at an advocacy organization in education, she saw the gap between policy and teachers’ practice. She decided to use the tools of organizational theory to study the relationship between instructional policy and teachers' classroom practices in urban schools. Most recently she has been studying innovative attempts to rethink the relationship between policy and practice, specifically models of research–practice partnership.

Easterday expressed his interest in building better citizens who are more civically engaged and discovering how people learn to do it. He discussed his research in “intelligent tutoring” through the use of technology, such as his Policy World software. He has also been developing curriculum, such as with Design for America, a student group that seeks social impact through design. “How do you build a research agenda for social impact?” he asked. He described three steps: deciding on an audience, adopting a theory of change and making a commitment.

Eleanor Anderson, the SESP doctoral student who organized the event, asked the panelists when they had overcome the research-practice gap. Figlio pointed out the difficulty of maintaining dispassionate self-evaluation when one is invested in a certain intervention or idea. “I like to stay on the sidelines and do basic research before I start to pursue policy,” he said. That deep background can help to prevent mistakes. He gave the example of presenting incontrovertible evidence to Governor Jeb Bush about the Florida school accountability system, which helped to bring about a better version of the system.

Coburn said she keeps connected by her choice of research question, participation in commissions and teaching of practitioners. She prefers research questions that contribute not only to the research literature but also to practice. As examples of successes in closing the research-practice gap, she cited her sharing of a social network concept that superintendents found useful and creating a framework for scaling up that was promoted disseminated.

In design, Easterday explained the importance of “killing the darlings quickly,” in other words, dropping designs that aren’t effective. It’s helpful to use the experience of others to get to the solution faster, he noted.  Figlio said that over the last 20 years he has learned how to recognize if something is “valuable, useful and transferable.”

Anderson also queried the panel about different pathways for making the connection between policy and practice. “If you want to effect real and lasting change, teaching is a way to do it,” said Figlio. Coburn agreed, “Teaching school leaders and administrators can be incredibly rewarding.” She also pointed out the need to teach researchers how to partner with school districts. 

Easterday commented, “Academia may not be the best place to make an impact.” With all the pressures to publish, an academic who wants to make a difference may have to take on that goal in addition, he said, or choose an institution where mentorship can be found.

Figlio disagreed with the idea of an either-or situation. “It’s better research if it’s something you really care about,” he said.

“If it’s research that feeds practice, you want to make sure it’s really good research,” Coburn emphasized. She prefers going through the peer review process first before putting something into the realm of practice. “The stakes are really high in the places I want to affect,” she said.

In response to questions about influential research, Coburn stressed the importance of learning to communicate research findings well. Figlio added that quantitative and qualitative research can be equally good. “Own what it is you do, know how to do it well, know when to do it, and understand your audience,” he said.

Asked about the forms of service that are most beneficial, Easterday suggested the clinical model of trying to get as close to teachers as possible. Coburn suggested that service is most useful when it provides opportunities to learn about new settings and situations, as well as the opportunity for publication.  

“A lot of people let data drive research. Make sure you’re doing outstanding cutting-edge work by imagining you’ll get only one paper out of the research. Let the problem drive the scholarship. The service perspective could also give exciting new insights,” Figlio concluded.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 2/14/13