Conducting Research in K-12 Education Settings

Conducting Research in K-12 Education Settings

Conducting Research in K-12 Education Settings

Research with human subjects or their data is regulated by the federal government and reviewed by Teachers College (TC) Institutional Review Board (IRB). Educational research that involves students, teachers, administrative staff, student-level (e.g., test scores) administrative data, or classroom curriculum, activities, or assignments, may be subject to federal regulations and IRB review. This guide provides defining questions to ask about your research, considerations when developing consent procedures, and identifies several topics when conducting human subjects research in kindergarten through 12th-grade education settings.

Defining Questions to Ask

While preparing to submit your research protocol to the IRB, it is important to consider these key questions:

Who are your participants?

Identify whether your participants will be school administrators, teachers, students, your current or previous students. If you plan to recruit students that are under your supervision or jurisdiction (whether as a teacher, assistant teacher, or principal), your study may be subject to additional research compliance requirements. Please review the Working with Your Own Students guide for more information.

Researchers working with students under the age of 18 will be required to obtain both parent permission and assent, except in rare cases as outlined by the federal regulations.

In some cases, students may be involved in the research indirectly. For example, a researcher videotaping teachers during class time may inadvertently capture students in their recordings. Researchers should always have a plan for these types of situations, describing in the IRB application how they will prevent non-participants from being recorded. Once your population of interest is defined, the IRB will better understand what protections are needed.

What are your research activities?

Exempt Category 1 indicates that protocols may be exempt from IRB review if the research is “conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, that specifically involves normal educational practices that are not likely to adversely impact students’ opportunity to learn or the assessment of educators.” It is important to note that Exempt Category 1 is not a catch-all for education research. Observations of classroom activities may qualify for this category, but only if the activities observed are part of a typical schedule. However, if the researcher engages with the students, classroom materials, or teachers during the observations and/or intervenes in the course of the natural classroom activities, the research may not qualify for Exempt Category 1.

  • Program evaluations may not be considered under Exempt Category 1 research if the curriculum being evaluated is not part of the typical school practice. For example, experimental teaching methods or new classroom activities that are outside of the typical curriculum would exclude research from this category.

Exempt Category 1 is not a catch-all for education research.

Other types of education research activities may include program or curriculum evaluations, surveys, interviews, or experimental interventions of new teaching strategies. Consider whether you will be collecting new data, accessing existing data, or a combination of the two.

  • When accessing student-level data for research purposes, consider using a data release form. A data release form is an agreement between the researcher and the participant in which the participant agrees to allow the researcher access to a specific set of data for research purposes.
  • In cases where a school or district shares a data set with a researcher, a data sharing form should be implemented between the head administrator (or site official) and the researcher.

Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are considered interventions, even in educational settings. Researchers will need to demonstrate how their randomized control trial has a fair selection of subjects and provides equitable access to education opportunities, especially if the trial occurs in the classroom.

  • For example, subjects in the control group of a new math intervention should have access to the intervention once the study has been concluded. Alternatively, a researcher who is testing a set of new math problems against a set of old problems can counterbalance the practice tests so that all students receive the new and old math problems, just at different time points.

Where and when are your research activities?

School Permission Template and Site Permission Template are required for research on external premises. Permission forms should always be signed by the head of the school or district, rather than a teacher or aide.

It is important to determine the exact time of day the research will be conducted, whether during school breaks, during class time, or before and after school. The proposed research activities should be conducted in the least intrusive way possible, ideally outside of class time if the study activities are not part of typical education. Evaluate whether the research will detract from normal learning time or if it is possible to do outside of class time.

What Does Consent Look Like in Education Research?

Consent in education settings may require additional steps to ensure vulnerable populations are protected. Typically, both parent permission forms and child assent forms are required in order for a student to participate in a research study. In addition, if a study is being conducted at the school or district level, teachers, parents, and students should have the option to opt-into the study. Two key considerations for navigating this consent process are:

  1. Burden on Teachers and School Administrators
    There are several elements of research that, if carried out by school staff, will add burden to the staff, including collecting consent, supporting participant recruitment, and managing participant data. It is important to ask yourself how much your proposed research activities require of the teachers or school administrators? What is their total time commitment? What activities can you as the researcher take on in order to relieve the burden on school staff? Consider who is distributing and collecting forms, who is in charge of implementing the study activities, and any other responsibilities that may be required for the research.
  2. Managing individuals who do not want to participate in the study
    If parents or students do not want their child to participate in the research study, an experimental activity, or survey, there must be an alternative option for that student. Specific precautions must be taken to respect those individuals. For example, if a classroom will be recorded there must be a protocol in place to protect students who do not consent. Additionally, if a class is participating in a survey, ensure that there are non-research activities the student can participate in while the survey is being conducted.

Other Considerations for Education Researchers

  • New software to be used in research settings requires a software proposal to TC IT. Software will be vetted by TC IT to ensure that it meets the privacy and security requirements set forth by the College. Begin by reviewing the approved software list. If the software is not on the approved list, submit a “Project Request.” The "Project Request" button can be found on MyTC/Support (upper right corner) "Submit a Project Request” or reach out to TCIT at
  • In addition, Teachers College requires PI’s to use their TC issued Google accounts when conducting research. TC specific Google accounts are encrypted with additional security protects and should be used for all documents including recruiting materials, storing data, etc.
  • Some schools and districts have their own IRB of oversight (e.g., NYC DOE IRB). If you are using the school site to conduct research, recruiting or contacting participants through their professional networks, or conducting activities during schooltime, you may be required to submit to the school’s IRB of oversight as well. Always double check to ensure you are submitting your research to the correct institution(s).
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