Why is it so challenging to conduct research in K-12 education?

Why is it so challenging to conduct research in K-12 education?

The Intricacies of Conducting Research in K-12 Education: An In-Depth Analysis

Our country desperately needs an overhaul in K-12 education. In order to make this a reality, the quality of supporting research is essential. Research in K-12 education is often hampered by a number of challenges, making it difficult to conduct rigorous studies. This blog explores the challenges our K-12 researchers face today as well as possible solutions. 

Ethical Considerations

Human subjects research is governed by ethical considerations, especially when involving children. Any legitimate research that includes humans must go through an Internal Review Board (IRB). This process can vary from institution to institution as well as the nature of the research being proposed. Generally the steps include determining if the IRB is necessary, developing a research plan, completing an application to the IRB, submitting the application, responding to follow up requests and questions form the board, IRB edits and/or potential research design improvements, then receiving approval or “sigh” more required  changes prior to approval. This is a lengthy process and further complexity is introduced by funding and the needed consent from participants.  

The well-being and privacy of students will always be prioritized by parents, educators, and researchers alike. Therefore, obtaining informed consent from parents or guardians can be arduous and time-consuming. Study designs must respect students’ rights and protect their welfare while also remaining scientifically valid. Balancing all of the components of privacy, consent, and meeting the expectations of your institution and/or funders is not for the faint of heart.

Diverse Settings

From public to private institutions and from rural to urban environments, K-12 education encompasses a wide range of school types. The diversity of these populations can make it difficult for researchers to generalize their findings to broader populations or to draw conclusions that can be applied to a variety of contexts. There may also be unique policies, procedures, and curricula within each school and district that may affect research results.  It is also important to consider the intent of any study performed within the K-12 setting. There is some precedent for data being misused in ways that offset equity in the US.

“If we are imposing measures of success on communities, we are essentially also then imposing our values and agenda on them. Communities have been burned and harmed by the ways that measurement has been weaponized in past education reform efforts without their involvement.”

Confounding variables

It can be difficult to isolate the effects of a particular intervention or practice in educational research because of the complex interplay of factors that influence student learning. Among these factors are classroom dynamics, socioeconomic status, student motivation, parental engagement and teacher quality. Accounting for these different variables is often complex and time-consuming. The teacher shortage is also causing inconsistencies in resources that exacerbate the teacher quality and can strain new strategy implementation.

Resource constraints

K-12 education research often requires significant time, money, and human resources. In order to understand the long-term effects of educational interventions, longitudinal studies can span several years and require ongoing funding. Schools and teachers are often reluctant to participate in research projects having concerns about disrupting their daily routines and time away from instruction. Many teachers are also very much focused on raising state test scores and often fear variation from prepping towards their teaching goals. Lastly, even with district buy-in for a study, researchers also end up having to coordinate directly with individual schools for execution. 

Messy Data Issues

The arduous process of accessing K-12 education data can be extremely frustrating. This is especially true when the data is messy and almost impossible to aggregate for research purposes.  In spite of the fact that schools and districts have enormous amounts of valuable data, that data is often siloed, difficult to aggregate, or disorganized. Researchers are often unable to extract useful insights from school data due to its disorganization and disaggregation.

Additionally, because centralized school data is already difficult to parse, bringing in outside systems (such as disparate assessment providers) or giving them access to school insights from outside tutoring companies or professional development providers can also hinder or slow down progress.

Political and policy pressures

Changing policy priorities and a heated political climate also affect education, creating more challenges for researchers. It is possible for political agendas and policy changes to dictate which research areas receive support or funding, hindering the exploration of innovative ideas. Policy makers are focused on ROI in the final year of ESSER due to high expectations for reporting. State tests and NAEP scores in 2024 will remain the primary focus of governors’ offices. 

The level of focus on ROI may make it challenging to try new things or implement research that goes beyond basic third-party evaluations.  It is also possible for researchers to be pressured to produce results that support a particular policy or program. Their objectivity and integrity can be compromised by this kind of pressure. 


Educating children is a complex endeavor, involving ethical considerations, diverse learning environments, confounding variables, and  resource constraints. In order to overcome these challenges and contribute to the improvement of education, researchers, educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders must collaborate and be willing to adapt and innovate.

A number of solutions are possible, including simplifying the informed consent process, creating standardized research methodologies across multiple educational contexts, and advocating for increased funding and support for long-term, objective research.

Some additional solutions might include:

  1. Creating Collaborative Research Networks that establish long term research relationships with key K-12 stakeholders.  
  2. Interdisciplinary Approaches: Researchers can collaborate with experts from other fields to bring a multidisciplinary perspective to their research. This can help to address the complex and multifaceted nature of the challenges facing K-12 education, and can lead to more innovative and effective solutions.  This approach may also help with LEA and school level buy-in. 
  3. Technology-Based Solutions: It may be possible to set up more robust data aggregation that are inherently part of native school data systems.  This could streamline the research process and make it more efficient. For example, online survey tools, data management software, and educational data analytics platforms could help researchers identify possible research and better collect, manage, and analyze data already collected. 

Our goal at Pearl is to unlock educational research’s potential to improve K-12 education in the US. We are always looking for creative ideas and partners to help bridge the research to practice gap.  Please reach out anytime to schedule a discussion.

To Access Great Education Research with a focus on tutoring – NSSA Research Repository

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