So You Think You Want to Conduct Research in a School District?

By Hella Bel Hadj Amor
November 2014

When I led the data and research request process at DC Public Schools, I heard a range of arguments from researchers who wanted to conduct research or receive data. Some were funny, others outrageous. That’s why I am writing an introduction on how to do this right.

Believe it or not, doing research in a school district is not primarily about researchers. The best way to start is by thinking about what’s in it for the district, because that’s what they’ll want to hear first. Thinking about this will smooth your communication with the district and sharpen your thinking about your design and analysis.

Things not to say when they ask why you want to do this research or receive data:

This is good and important research.
I need to do this to get my degree or get tenure.
Just give me the data and don’t worry about what I’m going to do with it; I promise not to publish, give it to the press, and be cautious.

While these are true and valid reasons why this work is good for you, what about the people who are going to help you, generally at no cost? Try saying things like this:

This is why my proposed research is in the best interests of your students
Here are specific ways the district can use my research findings.
This work will build your capacity to serve your students better.
The work fits nicely within the following district strategic priorities…

In some cases, researchers who were denied permission at the district level then tried going directly to the schools. While a principal may let you into his or her school, if district officials find out and did not okay it, they might stop the project. It’s great to have the support of someone on the ground, such as a principal as they can advocate for you. The problem is that they likely cannot authorize research. (At the same time, just because a district has approved your request doesn’t mean schools or teachers will participate. Permission means you are allowed to approach them about your project.)

If your request is denied, going directly to the schools is risky. I once had a savvy principal call me with the person whose request had been denied sitting in her office. The researcher had just told the principal that the request was approved, but the principal decided to check because the researcher did not have proper documentation in hand. I also received calls from principals about researchers who were literally banging on their doors to be admitted. We severed relationships with the organizations that did this and they are no longer allowed to work with the district.