When Researchers Visit Your School

Simply because they are trying out new ideas in the classroom, Essential Schools often find themselves examined within an inch of their lives. Policy makers, doctoral candidates, fellow Essential School people, and journalists may descend upon a school in the throes of change, prodding it for symptoms of success or failure. How should a school react, and where does it draw the line between invasion and accountability to the larger community?

Patrick McQuillan and Donna Muncey have given a lot of thought to these issues as they carried out an independent three-year ethnographic study of Essential schools in the process of school change. In a recent paper, they set forth seven guiding questions that schools might ask themselves before they deny or grant access to researchers. The school, they argue, can help shape research projects so they benefit not only the researcher and the larger community but the school itself. It can protect the rights of those who participate in the research, and forestall the tensions it could generate among the staff. And it can go a long way toward preventing the researcher from over-simplifying the issues that face education.

  • What is the focus of the research? What are the guiding questions? Why and for whom is the research being conducted?Get a written copy of the proposal or assignment, and try to identify what political agenda, if any, is involved. Will there be time to explore the questions adequately? Are there questions you would want to add to the list? How might the findings be used? Will you see the final product?
  • How will data be collected? Whether it is qualitative or quantitative research will greatly affect the time required as well as the nature of the research.
  • Who will be asked to participate? Political tensions within the schools may be worsened if points of view are left out, and the quality of the research may suffer, too. Are students, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, social workers, administrative staff included in the plan?
  • What roles will school personnel be asked to play in this research? Depending on what is asked in terms of time and energy, and whether compensation is offered, different points of view may emerge.
  • How will participants’ confidentiality be protected? Talking about privacy issues and school tensions beforehand will avert potential difficulties with both research procedures and the usefulness of the findings.
  • Will research participants assist in data analysis? It’s helpful to their work, McQuillan and Muncey have found, to let collaborators see and respond to their findings early enough to forestall problems of interpretation.
  • What feedback will the school receive, what form will it take, and at what stage of the research process will it be provided? For your trouble you might get a useful evaluative report, a summary of findings, or relevant data analysis–or you might get nothing. Who gets what and when are important questions to establish.
  • You can say no. If you are dissatisfied with the answers to these questions, you can refuse to let the research proceed. But McQuillan and Muncey recommend instead that you talk over your reservations with the researchers and allow them the chance to modify their design.

(McQuillan and Muncey’s paper, “Protecting the Interests of Your School While Promoting Quality Research: Some Issues to Consider When Allowing Research to Be Conducted in Your School,” will appear in the September issue of Executive Educator. Reprints can be had by writing the School Ethnography Project at CES, Box 1969, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912.)