Questions you can ask

Educational research is fraught with difficulties, so let’s look at some of the questions you can ask


Rebecca Goldin Ph.D.

May 20, 2019

Photo credit: Milenny for

Educational research is fraught with difficulties, including (but not limited to) the difficulty in making uniform comparisons, the transience of student populations, the changing nature of what is being studied, problems with standardized exams, and many more.

Direct, descriptive questions 

Some questions are easily asked and possibly easily answered. They have to do with “what is” rather than what caused something to happen—or what results from the patterns behind the data. Here are few types of descriptive questions you can ask:

  • What is the trend in the cost of college over the past 10-15 years?
  • What does my local district spend on education, and how does that compare to previous years (adjusted for inflation)?
  • How many A.P. courses do students in XX high school take?
  • What is the average SAT score on the math section of the exam, and how does that compare across different demographics?
  • What is the relationship between housing prices and high school graduation rates?
  • What percentage of children attend pre-school?
  • How do U.S. math scores compare to those from Singapore on the PISA exam?
  • What are the demographics of kids who are suspended from school in elementary school, compared to the kids who are not?

The key is that none of these questions require much interpretation of the data. One caveat is that data collection itself can create biases, and you want to be wary of how that data collection may impact the conclusion you are trying to make. For example, the PIACC was conducted in English only in the U.S. This is likely to influence the results of how the U.S. compares to other countries in adult literacy. On the other hand, the data about how many enrollments in A.P. courses may be a simple number that can be found.

Investigative data ideas: Follow the money 

  • How have the spending patterns changed (adjusted for inflation) over the course of a period of time in your local district?
  • How much money is spent on school vouchers at the state level, and how does this impact a local school system?
  • What are the starting salaries for teachers? What are they earning after 20 years? With an advanced degree? (How do benefits factor in?) How does this compare to other professions?

Demographic questions 

  • How are suspensions and expulsions from schools distributed among students with disabilities versus those without disabilities?
  • How does a proposal to finance college impact different groups of people?
  • Are there large differences in classroom sizes across schools in a district? Are there patterns of which students are in smaller classrooms versus those in larger classrooms?
  • What demographic differences are there in students taking Honors or Advanced Placement courses in a district/state?
  • What comparisons can be made among different countries in reading, math or science?

Teacher and student evaluation 

  • How robust are methods to evaluate teachers? (What data is collected, and how it used?)
  • How long do teachers stay in their jobs? Why do they stay and why do they leave?
  • Are there specific laws/rules that work against/for a large number of high school kids in terms of graduation rates or college attendance?

Cross regional comparisons 

  • How do the math requirements for high school graduation in your state compare to those in other states? Does this have an impact on graduation rates (to find out the answer to this latter question, you will need to be in touch with principals who can attest to the blocking points for students and/or request data from the county about the graduation requirements not met by students who drop out).
  • What standardized test score differences are found across different states?
  • Describe the different funding levels for public universities across each state, and the average percentage of in-state students admitted in each flagship state university.
  • What requirements do teachers need to teach (at a specific level, for a specific program, perhaps teaching a specific course), such as a certification to teach Algebra, and what percentage have them?
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