The Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay Discusses Covering Education Research
 
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June 2018

The following Q&A is one in an occasional series of conversations with policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to education research. Jill Barshay is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. Previously, Jill was the New York bureau chief for Marketplace. She has also written for Congressional Quarterly, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013–14 school year, and was a 2016–17 Spencer Fellow in Education Journalism. She can be reached at barshay@hechingereport.org.  

Q. What factors do you consider when determining whether a new research study is worth covering?

A. My favorite studies challenge our conventional wisdom or common teaching practices. For example, when many community colleges were adding online courses, it was interesting to see so many studies finding that students weren’t learning as well from them. Or I thought it was important to cover studies proving that colleges were placing too many students in “developmental” education classes. 

The same is true for K–12 education. Recently, researchers studied the problems of specialized teaching in the younger grades, a rising trend in elementary schools, and the downside of departmentalization. 

I also like meta-analyses which help me distill a lot of research at once and can help answer bigger questions about effective teaching practices. 
 
Q. How do you decide if research is of high enough quality to cover?
 
A. I prefer to write about studies which employ a randomized controlled trial or quasi-causal methods which use matching techniques to compare student outcomes.  This is particularly important when I’m writing about whether or not students are benefiting from a particular educational approach.  But qualitative studies are important too, and you can learn a lot from a detailed dissection of how something is working or not working in a school without control groups. For example, Deborah Loewenberg Ball’s recent research into implicit bias in elementary school math classrooms was enlightening for me and many of my readers. Even company-sponsored research by an educational software maker can be interesting when it mines its user data to learn which students learn more and why. The tricky thing here is to tease out the broader lessons that can be applied in any classroom and not promote the company’s product. 
 
Q. What areas of current education research are ripe for expanded coverage?
 
A. Teachers struggle with how to manage student disruptions. I’d like to see more research on that. Effective methods for dealing with teachers’ implicit biases would be helpful. And I’m interested in more research on how to nurture high achievement, especially among blacks and Hispanics. What can parents, teachers, and school systems do to help students jump from proficient to above proficient?

As always, I’d like to read more about replications, failures to replicate, and null results. 
 
Q. What education issues are especially newsworthy right now? Which ones do you see emerging over the next six months or year? What questions related to those issues lend themselves to education research?

A. Newsworthy now: How school choice increases or decreases segregation, private school vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, bullying, “personalized learning,” “competency”- or “mastery”-based learning, education technology, immigrant education, low-income college access and attainment. 
Emerging: Project-based learning and moving away from standardized testing. 
 
Q. What advice do you have for researchers and other science communicators to make research findings more accessible to reporters and other non-researchers?

A. Patience. I am grateful to all the researchers who don’t mind my asking the same questions over and over again until I can rephrase the findings in my own words. I especially admire researchers who can come up with metaphors to make things easier to understand. 
 
Q. What are some best practices that researchers and science communicators should consider when pitching research?
 
A. The best pitches come not directly from a researcher but from a colleague. Tell me about the most interesting research you’ve read lately that’s not yours but you think is really important. Omnivorous academics who read a lot of research, can distill the main point in a single sentence, and explain how it fits into a larger debate are worth their weight in gold.

 
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