So You Think You Want to Conduct Research in a School District? Part 2

By Hella Bel Hadj Amor
November 2014

When you approach a district with a request to conduct research or receive data, you probably won’t be the first. Districts are likely to have a process for managing requests, especially districts like DC Public Schools where I used to manage this process and everyone wants to do research.

The request process is not in place to bug or discourage you but to follow laws and regulations. (Heard of FERPA?) The district probably has its own definitions of what constitutes research and data. Check before you say, “I should not have to go through your official process because what I am doing is not research or data collection.”

Plan ahead. Saying “I should not have to go through your process because I have a deadline” demonstrates no understanding of district processes or respect for the people managing them.

District timelines reflect what is feasible. Some deadlines cannot be moved even if the request manager wants to help. Limit your data request to what is directly relevant to your research question. Fill in the details, so the district does not waste time examining incomplete requests.

Some decisions are negotiable, like specific items in a memorandum of agreement or the number of study participants. Some are not. If the district asks for a background check, get one. If they ask for institutional review board (IRB) approval, get it. If your organization does not have an IRB, find one that can help you. Make sure you agree with restrictions the district may have on publicizing or publishing before you sign anything.

Being mindful of district staff time will help district staff believe you will be mindful with their school staff time. Describe what the district, school, teachers will do, and show you have made every effort to reduce the burden on them. Nothing should disrupt instruction or school activities.

Educators are surveyed constantly. If you want to conduct a survey, first make sure you cannot get the information through existing sources. Keep surveys short and user friendly. Be clear about whether it is anonymous, and think carefully about language. District lawyers will likely review surveys. Time your surveys around vacations, holidays, testing, and other constraints. Ask the district about other research activities happening in the schools with which you are working. Be thoughtful.

Read carefully the district’s active and passive consent procedures. Don’t ask to interview kindergartners without express parent permission. Don’t ask to be alone in a room interviewing children. Yes, I have seen these requests.

Do not send materials on district letterhead unless it’s district approved. This is misleading to educators, parents, or students who may feel pressured to comply because they think it’s a district requirement.

Incentives may increase response rates but check with the district first. There may be district or union rules disallowing incentives or restricting them (e.g., every teacher has the opportunity to participate).

Choose your data collection methods carefully. Random assignment is a big deal. Some researchers think it’s the golden rule, but that’s not enough. Often districts willing to do random assignment will not have the required sample sizes. Ensure random assignment doesn’t violate district rules or ethics.

I could go on and on, and I welcome other ideas! I’ll end on what you might think is obvious: Do not email student names, Social Security numbers, or other identifiers. Email is not secure! And my personal favorite: If your request is denied, you can appeal — but calling the request manager and putting your mother on the phone will not work!