David DeMatthews Provides Advice for Education Researchers on Why and How to Write Op-Eds
David DeMatthews Provides Advice for Education Researchers on Why and How to Write Op-Eds

February 2023

AERA member David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. His opinion pieces have appeared in Education Week, USA Today, The Hill, Texas Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, Houston Chronicle, Seattle Times, and Detroit Free Press. You can follow DeMatthews on Twitter at @DrDeMatt.

Education research matters and is relevant to the public as well as to practitioners and policymakers, but researchers are often untrained in connecting with these important audiences. Consequently, education research that could raise awareness of an emerging policy problem, inform legislative and governmental decisions, or influence public discourse too often goes unseen by audiences that could benefit from it. Politically motivated attacks on public education, emerging concerns about fraud in the charter sector, and book bans are examples of current events that many researchers can speak to, given their training, experience, and expertise. Researchers may also have important knowledge to share within their state or local communities about school finance laws, accountability policies, and recent legislation and court decisions.

Op-eds are one important avenue for researchers seeking to reach new audiences. Op-eds are typically short columns with a clear point of view tied to a topic of public interest. Researchers benefit from writing op-eds because their work becomes more visible, which can lead to new opportunities for public engagement (e.g., media interviews, invited talks, public testimony). However, writing an op-ed is not like writing a research article, and there are potential risks. To help get you started, I provide here a few simple considerations for op-ed writing. 

Do the research: Read op-eds for content and style, know your topic and key events/facts, understand how the media have covered your topic, and get a sense of how time sensitive your topic is, so you know when you need to submit.

Know your outlet: Read the newspaper or outlet you want to submit to and get a feel for it. Most local papers print op-eds of about 650 words that have a clear point of view and add something new to the topic. Reach out to editors for additional insight about writing expectations and topics of interest.

Know your audience: Adapt your writing to the outlet’s readership. Most readers are not going to know the ins and outs of your topic, so provide any necessary background information, avoid jargon, and keep them interested by showing why your topic is important to them.

Start strong: Your first sentence should be clear, attention grabbing, and summarize what's most important about your op-ed, because readers can stop reading at any time. The next paragraph can help provide some context and background for your op-ed.

Share facts/info: In the main body of the op-ed, provide evidence and facts to support your opinion. Add hyperlinks to publicly available information so readers can review your evidence.

Hone your style: Your writing should be direct, active, and to the point. Avoid long sentences and paragraphs or big words where short ones will do.

Understand the risks: Talk with other researchers who engage in public scholarship to understand the risks, and remember that your op-ed will remain accessible forever. Writing to a broad audience can expose you to criticism, personal attacks, and potentially threaten current and future career opportunities. Carefully evaluate the potential benefits and costs of speaking out publicly, and rely on feedback from trusted colleagues before doing so. Always consider the current campus, local, and state political climate when you engage in public scholarship. 

I believe researchers have the unique privilege and responsibility to use their experience, training, and depth of knowledge in service of communities and our nation. While there are some risks to public engagement, I hope researchers will summon the courage to translate and share their ideas with audiences outside of the academy. Your voice and scholarship matter, especially at a time when education, at all levels, is under attack.