Intermediaries as Brokers of Knowledge in Education

This is the sixth post in our eight-part blog series on using research evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Check back every week for the latest installment. Also, be sure to sign up for our March 7 webinar, ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States.

Carinne Deeds, Policy Associate

What exactly is an intermediary? What does an intermediary do? Are you acting as an intermediary whether you know it or not?

So many of us in the education policy world engage in various activities that are, in essence, the brokerage of knowledge, whether we do so knowingly or not.

I’ve spent the past two days immersed in conversations at the William T. Grant Foundation’s annual gathering of grantees, and over the course of the meeting I realized that a large majority of the discussion focused not only on the use of research evidence, but on the idea of “knowledge brokerage,” or the transfer of information between two parties who may not ordinarily interact. In this context, we discussed the role that intermediary organizations can play in connecting producers of research evidence (e.g., researchers) to consumers of research evidence (e.g., a school district). Over the course of the meeting it occurred to me that this idea of knowledge brokerage in education is, on the surface, a niche area of interest, but in reality it isn’t.

Given the emphasis that The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) places on the use of research evidence in education, I think it’s incredibly important that all relevant parties understand both the value and the limits of knowledge brokering – including intermediary organizations. Below are a few key themes I heard in these robust discussions that I think are applicable and relevant in this age of evidence use under ESSA.

1) You don’t have to self-identify as an intermediary to act as a broker of research evidence.

Brokering activities connect the consumers and producers of research evidence, with the ultimate goal that the evidence will inform decision-making in some way. Itzhak Yanovitzky of Rutgers University, for example, noted that knowledge brokers aren’t necessarily actors or entities, and that brokerage itself represents an activity or behavior. Just because your organization or agency may not call itself an intermediary organization doesn’t mean that you or your organization are not participating in the transfer of knowledge between producers and users of research.

Brokers may even act in clusters or networks. AYPF may not be the sole broker of knowledge for an afterschool organization in Austin, Texas, but if someone from that organization contacts me and I can’t answer their question, I can certainly point them to a research study or an organization who can. It’s also important to note that formal research-practice partnerships can facilitate a lot of these brokering activities with or without the presence of a separate entity acting as the intermediary.

2) Brokerage can help facilitate multiple types of research evidence use.

Research on the types or categories of evidence use describes an instance called the imposed use of research evidence, in which case the use of evidence is mandated. As most state agencies have probably figured out by now, ESSA calls for the imposed use of evidence by requiring that school improvement activities are supported by rigorous research evidence. The school improvement example also implies the instrumental use of research evidence, meaning a piece of evidence is directly applied to decision-making (i.e., a state uses findings from a study to justify a school’s use of a particular school improvement strategy). Intermediaries can certainly assist in helping states use research evidence in this way.

I’ve observed over the past few days, however, that intermediaries and knowledge brokers can play an especially important role in helping state and local agencies with other forms of evidence use. For example, the conceptual use of research evidence occurs when evidence consciously or unconsciously influences or informs the way policymakers and practitioners think about relevant issues. Consumers of research evidence – school district leaders, for example – may not frequently read academic journals for information, but they may regularly read research summaries or newsletters from organizations they know and trust, such as funders or national associations. For instance, school leaders may not have read Angela Duckworth’s original research on grit, but through formal or informal relationships with accessible knowledge brokers they are likely aware of what it is and the various issues and questions surrounding the idea. That information can inform their work in that the evidence provided may enlighten the way in which they approach certain topics or problems related to grit in their own schools.

3) The most effective brokerage activities are undergirded by trusting, mutually beneficial relationships.

Here’s a question for anyone who is a consumer of research (likely most or all of us): If you’re looking for trustworthy, reliable information, where do you go? To whom do you turn? Chances are, it’s a person or an organization you know and trust. AYPF’s Executive Director Betsy Brand previously noted that trust is an important precondition of successful intermediary activities, adding that producers, brokers, and users of research must all feel as though their voices and priorities are valued for the relationship to be effective.

The most successful brokers of knowledge also ensure that the relationships are mutually beneficial for researchers and practitioners, and that each party has the opportunity to learn from the other. Knowledge brokers can leverage their relationships with researchers to ensure that the priorities and concerns of practitioners are heard, while helping translate research findings to practitioners in a way that is most useful and applicable to them. This requires both the producers and consumers to relinquish a certain amount of control – something that requires a great amount of trust in the intermediary or the broker. Which leads me to #4…

4) With great trust comes great responsibility.

The trusting relationships I described above assume a lot of things. They assume that brokers of information are knowledgeable, have access to the best research, and can interpret that research effectively. They also assume that brokers aren’t acting in self-interest, are unbiased, and will prioritize neutrality over an agenda.

This isn’t to say that every intermediary or knowledge broker should be nonpartisan or non-mission driven, but it does imply the heightened importance of objectivity when these types of brokerage activities occur. For example, when discussing with local afterschool organizations the benefits of summer learning, I may reference a study by the RAND Corporation on the effects of summer learning programs on low-income urban youth – a study that a program coordinator at a Boys and Girls club likely wouldn’t have accessed on his or her own. I probably won’t explain the researchers’ methodology, but I will discuss the results of the study and the limitations and implications for the person who is using that knowledge. This puts an enormous responsibility on me as the knowledge broker to present the information in a way that is both accurate and relevant – a hefty but important task.

I’ll conclude by suggesting that with the responsibility discussed above comes the charge for all brokers of knowledge – whether they self-identify or not – to be incredibly thoughtful in how we receive and communicate information, particularly with regards to research evidence.

Carinne Deeds is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.