Tompkins-Stange’s new study highlights crucial role of resources in shaping federal education policy

May 20, 2021

In 2008, Bill Gates gave a speech about how his foundation viewed teacher quality—specifically, separating high-performing teachers from low-performing ones through teacher evaluation—as their most important funding priority. In 2009, the Obama Administration announced $4.3 billion in incentives for states to adopt test-score based teacher evaluation systems for annual assessment of students’ progress. In 2013, 31 states made it a requirement to use student test score data in teacher evaluations. 

How did teacher evaluation become a central federal policy priority? In a new study, Ford School Professor Megan Tompkins-Stange and colleagues from Michigan State University and the University of Edinburgh use the case of teacher quality policy to illuminate how ideas get taken up into policy, tracing the factors that lead to some ideas becoming dominant over others. The authors show how philanthropic funders use research evidence and advocacy in order to promote and sponsor preferred policy measures, and how interlocking networks of think tanks, nonprofit organizations, and policy elites diffuse these ideas into public discourse. 

Using a mixed-methods approach using discourse network analysis of all Congressional hearings on teacher quality over a 15-year period, combined with 60 qualitative interviews, the researchers developed a conceptual framework to explain how a coordinated network of philanthropic foundations, think tanks and advocacy organizations, and policy elites strategically used research evidence to elevate teacher evaluation in political debate. Tompkins-Stange and her colleagues found that the most influential producers of evidence, cited most often in Congressional debate, were not universities, but advocacy groups, and that elite funders supported advocacy research more than any other source. 

Tompkins-Stange said, “Whereas academic researchers are typically expected to generate evidence that conforms to standards of empirical rigor and peer review, advocacy researchers produce evidence that is specifically created to provide justification for a preferred policy measure, which means that it recommends concrete actions targeted towards policymakers, and uses an unequivocal tone, unlike university-based research.” 

Advocacy research was promoted by synthesizers, or intermediary organizations that create, repackage, and market ideas in order to advance “promoted a shared and taken-for-granted understanding: that evaluation reforms would dramatically improve teacher quality,” the authors wrote. Through mutually reinforcing networks of funders, synthesizers, and policy staff, test score-based teacher evaluation rapidly ascended to become a central element of federal policy over the course of several decades. 

The authors draw several important lessons regarding the philanthropic funding of research intended for policy influence, including the need for researchers to be attentive to if and how the education policy funder community uses research. They write, “the power dynamics that allow funders to influence research and advocacy agendas are entrenched by many features of the American political system…Without addressing the role of funders in both research and advocacy, researchers would miss one of the most influential components of our current system of educational policymaking.” They also recommend that university-based researchers should learn from the strategies that synthesizers use for ensuring that their evidence gets in front of policymakers, rather than taking a more traditional, hands-off approach.

You can read the study here.

Sarah Reckhow (Michigan State University), Megan Tompkins-Stange (University of Michigan), and Sarah Galey-Horn (University of Edinburgh). “How the Political Economy of Knowledge Production Shapes Education Policy: The Case of Teacher Evaluation in Federal Policy Discourse” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. (2021).