Heather King on Tips for Working With School District Research Review Boards

Hi!  I’m Heather King, an Associate Project Director at Outlier Research & Evaluation at the University of Chicago. I’d like to share some tips for applying to conduct research in school districts.

Research review boards (RRBs) and institutional review boards (IRBs) are tasked with ensuring that research and evaluation projects meet the requirements for protecting human subjects. If you are collecting interview, questionnaire, focus group, or any other data directly from human subjects, you are required to earn IRB/RRB approval. You’ll need to apply separately for IRB/RRB approval at your own institution and for each school district you’ll collect data in.

I’ve completed successful IRB/RRB applications for some of the largest school districts in the United States and I’d like to share some tips for success.

Lessons Learned:

Start early. Earning district IRB approval is a prerequisite for each of our research and evaluation projects, so we do everything we can do ensure that our IRB applications are well received. The first step is beginning applications early, at least 2 months before the deadline. This gives you time to collect or create the necessary documents, such as instruments and consent forms, and to ensure that your institutional IRB has been approved.

Know the deadlines. Many districts meet only a few times a year to read and approve IRB applications, so meeting the deadline is critical. You might not have another chance to submit your application for another 6 months! Knowing the deadlines can help you plan your evaluation too. For example, if your project begins after a district IRB application deadline has already passed, you can plan in advance to begin data collection around the next IRB deadline.

Read everything. After you’ve done a few IRB applications, it can start to feel like they’re all the same, and generally they are. But each district has its own nuances; don’t wait until you get a rejection letter to learn that! In particular, read details about consent, compensation/incentives, and data collection timing because policies vary widely from district to district. For example, the Chicago Public School RRB requires that your instruments be physically stamped with approval from your home institution IRB.

Make some friends in the IRB office. Navigating the IRB process for each district takes a lot of time, and you’ll undoubtedly have questions. It helps to have a contact in the IRB office that can help explain the process and answer any questions you might have. In my experience, IRB offices appreciate being asked detailed questions because they get so many applications that have not been carefully prepared.

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2 thoughts on “Heather King on Tips for Working With School District Research Review Boards”

  1. Hi,
    I work for an intermediary organization and we are increasingly conducting research and evaluation projects. We currently do not have an IRB committee. Do you know where I can find advice on the steps to set one up, or if there are ways to use other organization’s IRBs?

  2. Please keep in mind that there are huge differences, from an IRB standpoint, between ‘research’ and ‘evaluation’. While each and every school district might have its own RRB, many ‘evaluation’ projects (even using the best of research methodologies) DO NOT meet the guidelines of human subjects research intended for generalizable knowledge. As such, these evaluations do not need an institutional level IRB review. As an IRB member of a large academic institution, we see this myth all the time – yet appreciate that investigators and evaluators are thinking very ethically about who they’re collecting data from, how they’re collecting data, what data is being collected, how will it be represented and displayed, etc. Yet, if the true intent, at the start of the project, is to (for example) evaluate a program for a school district with the intent of either a needs assessment, a curricular evaluation, obtaining information to help improve a specific program, etc. – this IS NOT human subjects research (yes, human subjects, but not research and the AND between those 2 is what makes for IRB oversight. So all of the tips for today are great in terms of timelines, knowing what’s needed, having a good contact info, etc – but many evaluations that are part of ‘business operations’ for a school district do not need an academic/home institutional IRB review.

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