Research as a Tool for Advocacy

By Sally Grapin, Montclair State University

In the last decade, the concept of social justice has received unprecedented attention in the field of school psychology. As the field grapples with its role in promoting social justice, many scholars have focused on integrating advocacy and research to deconstruct systems of power and privilege in K-12 schools, training environments, and communities. To better understand research as a tool for advocacy, the authors of this post reached out to four experts in integrating these professional activities. Our panelists include Drs. Antoinette Miranda (The Ohio State University), Sherrie Proctor (Queens College, City University of New York), David Shriberg (Indiana University), and Sam Song (University of Nevada, Las Vegas). These scholars were asked to respond to a variety of questions about their research experiences, goals, and challenges, as presented below.

What does it mean for school psychologists to use research as advocacy? Why should scholars strive to integrate research and advocacy?

Antoinette Miranda [AM]: To me, it means answering the hard questions and examining areas that we have traditionally avoided in school psychology. In many respects, broader issues that are affecting education also affect the profession. These include the privatization of public schools, over-policing of urban schools, discipline issues, and chronic absenteeism, to name a few. These are systems issues, but we have the ability to implement programs and promote strategies that will benefit the most vulnerable students in education. I believe school psychologists can make an impact with research that examines and implements culturally responsive practices that improve the educational outcomes of minoritized youth. Our research should promote socially just practices.

Sam Song [SS]: The clearest differentiating factor is “action,” i.e., the findings result in (or contribute to) social action/change for a local community per “action research” literature.

Dave Shriberg [DS]: I believe connecting your research with advocacy is important both for the researcher and for the students that we work with. For the researcher, every scholar—or at least I hope this is the case—is motivated to pursue research questions that have the potential to be impactful. The vast majority of school psychology researchers want their work to benefit practice. However, practice does not occur in a vacuum. Schools are a microcosm of the broader society, including topics pertaining to social justice [e.g., topics related to equity, access, and respect (culturally responsive behavior/non-discriminatory behavior)]. I am hard-pressed to think of research topics within the realm of school psychology that do not touch on social justice issues in some way. So, to conduct your research as if social justice realities do not exist first limits the type and usefulness of the research questions you are exploring.

Second, to just put your research out there but not advocate for why this work is important lessens the likelihood that your work ultimately will have an impact. If you are convinced that all one needs to do is conduct the research and then things will take care of themselves in terms of this work being translated to practice in a culturally responsive manner that does not perpetuate existing inequities, then I think you are fooling yourself. It is possible to both remain objective in your data analysis and also work to devise research studies that speak to social justice advocacy and then to go out and advocate yourself for why your work—and the work of others—is important.

Regarding our students, we are modeling not only how to design strong research studies but also the moral imperative for why research is needed in the first place. Research itself can be considered a revolutionary act. If we already have all the answers, why conduct more research? By conducting research, you are saying that, on some level, the current state of knowledge on the topics you are studying is incomplete and/or inaccurate. Advocacy involves not just doing the study, but also making the case for why this work is needed, particularly in light of social injustices that impact your topic. If our students do not see us out there advocating for the need for our work and then tying this need to the moral imperatives that underlie social justice, how can we expect them to do so?

I once was afraid that if I advocated for social justice that I might somehow undercut my credibility as a researcher. I have never found this to be the case; instead, I have found that the more I make the case for why research that speaks to social justice is needed, the more I learn from others, the stronger my own research becomes, and the better mentor I become to my students.

In your opinion, what are the major social or advocacy issues that school psychologists should be addressing through their research?

AM: Many inequities impact students’ educational attainment.  School psychologists have the opportunity to address systemic issues that perpetuate and/or impact academic achievement, especially for marginalized students. For example, consider serious childhood trauma. We could be advocates for developing and implementing trauma informed practices school wide to help in reducing behavioral problems and improve the mental health of students.  We could be better advocates for wellness programs and school-community partnerships. There are many RFPs related to these issues that can focus on developing evidence-based programs. We need research that asks the hard questions with respect to these inequities such as disproportionality, effective training in the area of culturally responsive practices, and how the privatization of schools negatively affects urban public schools and our work in them.

SS: Major social or advocacy issues include educational disparities, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

DS: This is a bit challenging to answer. I think that almost every research topic germane to school psychology COULD be framed around social justice advocacy, if the researcher chose to think about it this way. Again, research can and should be revolutionary in the sense of changing paradigms. I worry very much that people will just start using the phrase “social justice” in their work because it is seen as trendy but not really do work that speaks to the disruption of the status quo on issues of equity, access, and respect that the term entails.

Everyone is passionate about different things when it comes to research and my sense always has been that people do their best work on topics that they are passionate about. That said, my opinion is that there is a major gap in school psychology research related to work that speaks directly to different forms of cultural oppression, be it racism, nativism, classism, religious oppression, sexism, heterosexism, etc. Ask the typical school psychologist if these different “isms” exist and cause harm in schools, and I believe most would say yes. But where is the deep well of research that speaks to these different topics and the intersectionalities between them? This type of research is rarely found in school psychology journals. Some of that is due to a lack of researchers in this area, but also I feel that many school psychology journals have historically been closed off to these topics. For a lot of school psychology researchers, to do this work has meant to look outside of school psychology journals to publish. So, while I do hope that more school psychology researchers pursue social justice topics—and my sense is that this is already happening—it’s not just about picking topics to address; it’s about having our field’s journals be open to high-quality research in these areas. My sense is that we have a long way to go on that front, unfortunately. I hope I am wrong about that.

Sherrie Proctor [SP]: Issues related to educational inequity represent major advocacy issues I believe school psychologists should address in their research. I think it is important to address these issues from a structural and systemic perspective instead of a student-centered deficit lens. For example, discipline disparities and school push-out for Black girls and boys that begin as early preschool are issues school psychologists can research using an advocacy frame. What are the structural/systemic factors that account for such disparities? Advocacy focused research approaches these topics through a lens that leads to actionable recommendations that challenge existing structures and systems that are unfair and unjust for specific student populations. An advocacy focused lens also pushes researchers to frame discussions of their findings in ways that disrupt the “status quo.”

How do you link advocacy and research in your own work?

SP: I begin by thinking about educational and social inequities and injustices that impact Black people, particularly Black students throughout the educational pipeline. I then immerse myself in the relevant research, identifying gaps in knowledge. My research questions are a direct result of the gaps I find, but I generally contextualize my work within school psychology. I’m highly focused on developing research questions that relate directly to our field because I feel that there is great opportunity to advocate for Black students within school psychology, given my knowledge of the field from both a practitioner and academic perspective. In many ways, my work is designed to help school psychologists gain insight into issues impacting Black students throughout the educational pipeline in order to encourage their advocacy for Black students. In my work, I stay away from the use of a deficit lens; instead I focus on systemic and structural changes that can lead to educational and social justice for Black students.

SS: I engage in action research or community based research (CBR), which includes participatory action research (PAR).

AM: My advocacy in research has mostly centered around social justice. Thus, I have examined how we can engage in socially just practice in a myriad of ways from training to implementing university-school partnerships.

What types of challenges have you or your colleagues encountered in integrating research and advocacy? What suggestions might you have for addressing these challenges?

SP: My main challenge as a younger researcher was fear that integrating research and advocacy would prevent me from getting published in school psychology journals. During my pre-tenure years, the prospect of my work getting rejected from in-field journals was really scary because much of my work is designed to influence our field. As I became a more experienced researcher and writer, this fear lessened a bit. For less experienced researchers, I recommend partnering with more experienced researchers who engage research using an advocacy frame. I also recommend reading research in other fields that integrate an advocacy frame, submitting your work to journals often and taking the feedback seriously, and writing a lot!  It may also be helpful to find a trusted colleague who is successful with integrating research and advocacy to review drafts of articles prior to journal submission.  I’ve also found having conversations with other researchers who are at my same career stage is helpful with talking through the challenges of integrating research and advocacy.

SS: Large districts seem to experience significant changes in administrative leadership at various levels (superintendents to team coordinators). It will behoove the researcher to build genuine relationships with various leaders and individuals in the community and system when (not if) this occurs. Fortunately, true CBR/action requires such relationship-building.

DS: The biggest challenge I see is a lack of programmatic and institutional support, particularly for faculty from minoritized groups. If you decide that you are going to bring advocacy to your work, particularly around social justice topics that inherently involve challenging the status quo, you are almost certainly going to meet resistance, often very fierce and personal resistance. Even as someone with privilege, I have experienced this regularly. It’s the unfortunate reality of many academic spaces that you are going to get a lot of pushback if you advocate for social justice. Academia tends to reward those who don’t make waves and those who follow whomever has the most power in their college at that moment. So, finding the right place to work, a place that truly values you for you and allows you the space to advocate for social justice, is incredibly important, as is finding allies to help you through the inevitable pushback you will receive when you speak up. This is not a random sample, but over the years I have heard from so many graduate students and faculty from across the country who tell me that their school psychology programs are hostile to social justice research and advocacy. This needs to change.

Some have argued that integrating research and advocacy may bias scientific investigations by skewing findings in support of specific ideologies or positions. How would you respond to this claim?

SS: First, part of the answer relates to how “advocacy” is defined. Some would not define it the way that I did above. Second, it is common knowledge, especially in 2020, that all human endeavors are ripe with “specific ideologies or positions” to use your terms. Said in another way, even the most “rigorous” of scientific studies are based on human beliefs (e.g., epistemology), values, etc. that have influenced even the type of research question asked. For those who do not understand this, well then, they are biased.

AM: We are assuming that this already doesn’t or hasn’t happened.  We have many examples of this having occurred in “supposedly” scientific investigations in the past. If we are engaging in research for the purpose of advocating for better programs, strategies, and system-wide solutions that will improve outcomes for our most vulnerable students, then we are doing the right and socially just thing. In addition, research that exposes flaws, discrimination, disproportionality, racism, and poor practices will hopefully enable us to develop solutions that meet the needs of students in a cultural context. Honestly, I think too often “research” has justified practices that negatively affect minoritized populations and thus has supported a specific ideology that has been detrimental to certain segments of the population.

DS: I have never understood this argument and find it incredibly insulting. You are saying that you do not trust the author to be ethical. As a journal editor, many times I have given authors feedback that they are making claims that go beyond their data. I do not assume, however, that they are doing this on purpose or have some kind of “agenda” behind this mistake. Researchers are not perfect and, in my opinion, when they go beyond their data this should be pointed out and factored into editorial decisions. None of this, however, has anything to do with the TOPIC of the research, and I see no reason why, to the extent this occurs, skewing findings to fit someone’s preconceived ideas or otherwise going beyond the data obtained is any more common with people doing research focused on social justice than any other topic we might investigate.

One of the things I have noticed is that people who have the concern reflected in this question tend to emphasize the sanctity of objective data but then provide no objective data of their own in support of their claim that the social justice oriented research was biased. Many times over my career I have submitted research focused on social justice only to receive reviews suggesting that the reviewers dismissed the work out of hand because they felt that the topic was not legitimate, without critiquing the actual quality of the research design.  Of course, these kinds of reviews reveal the reviewers’ bias, but I don’t get the sense that these reviewers get the irony that they are accusing me of being biased in words that reveal that their own biases were the guiding factors in their conclusion. I am not saying that all of my studies are perfect—they are not—or that work related to social justice should not be judged on its merits. What I am saying is that, despite the loud claims of such bias, no one has ever shown me any convincing, data-based evidence that a lack of objectivity is any more common in research focused on social justice than it is in research on any other topic. As such, I have a hard time taking this argument particularly seriously intellectually, although I recognize that the prevalence of this type of thinking presents major barriers to work reflecting social justice being published in school psychology journals, which I tend to assume is the intent.

How can early career scholars build an advocacy agenda into their own scholarship?

SS: Consider why you entered the field and the communities who are most in need or minoritized by the status quo. Partner with them – listen and learn from them, develop genuine relationships with them, and work together to take action.

SP: I think all research is biased, and this bias starts with the selection and framing of research questions. I believe that many people truly believe that our science is objective. I am not one of those people. One reason I really love and embrace qualitative methods is that these methods force researchers to name their biases upfront as well as to monitor/challenge them throughout the research process. I think when you are more upfront with and acknowledge the biases you bring to the research process, you are more attuned to managing them. I think strong research designs, collaborating with other researchers who share a high level of integrity, and being ethical prevents skewing of findings in support of specific ideologies or positions. But, I think this is true for those doing advocacy focused research or not. I do think it is important for research that serves as advocacy to be clear in its limitations. I also think it helps for researchers who utilize an advocacy frame to be upfront in their aims and not to overreach in their interpretation of findings in order to support a position. But, again, I think the things I am speaking of are indicative of behaviors in which all researchers should engage, not just those who aim to use research as an advocacy tool.

AM: I believe they have to have a commitment to engage in research with the purpose of improving educational outcomes in the real world. We cannot do research for research’s sake in the educational community.  We need to develop, implement, and share evidence-based practices that work with students in a cultural context.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on this topic? What else should readers consider?

SS: Be aware that this type of work takes longer to develop relationships and may become stalled due to transitions in leadership. This has happened to me a number of times in different contexts. It will be important to have multiple types of projects with this community and with others. It will help with the tenure-pressure. After all, we (the field of school psychology) need you all to be successful for the future of our profession!

Thank you to each panelist for taking the time to respond to these questions and to share your insights with early career researchers.

How do you integrate research and advocacy in your own work? Share your thoughts below!

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