IRB Guidance: Research in K-12 Schools

This page provides an overview of the unique aspects of conducting research in K-12 schools.

School based research projects require special considerations beyond the federal regulations and University policy, including: 

Site permission
K-12 school sites are autonomous institutions that retain the right to approve/reject any human subjects research to be conducted on their site, in their facilities, or with their teachers, staff or students. Therefore, for research in schools, the IRB requires site permission documentation from an appropriate authority at each school or district.

Each K-12 site may have different procedures for approving external research. It is the expectation of the IRB that researchers will contact  the schools/districts/administrators to get permission from the appropriate authority. Depending on the specific site, permission may be granted by a superintendent, principal, or by a committee at the district (i.e. Madison Metro School District, Milwaukee Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools have their own external research review committees).

If a district uses a committee to review research proposals, it is important to plan additional time into the approval process since the study will be reviewed by both the UW-Madison IRB and the school’s review committee (i.e. MMSD meets once a month, and only during the academic year; MPS meets quarterly). An important distinction that should be made as part of the ARROW application is whether the research will be presented in classrooms as part of the district's standard curriculum, as that distinction often impacts the level of IRB review.

Often K-12 school sites will require proof of IRB review prior to their approval. If the study does not qualify to be approved as Exempt, the IRB can provide conditional approval as evidence of review to sites by approving the application with Administrative Hold. However, final approval will not be granted until appropriate site permission has been submitted to the IRB via ARROW - this must be uploaded by the PI in the Admin Hold Response. 

As sites differ in their review and approval process, the IRB sees many different types of site permission documentation. However, any letter of support/approval must indicate that the site understands the scope of the project. In addition, the IRB generally looks for the following to be included in site permission letters:
  • Protocol title/number (or name of study);
  • Names of the research team members;
  • A scope of the research and/or activities to be conducted at the site;
  • Name of the site;
  • Person or entity providing permission (including title, contact information, and confirmation of appropriate authority to provide permission).
If teachers are engaged in research activities taking place in their school or classroom, for studies that do not qualify to be approved as Exempt, they must complete human subjects training, and be listed on the protocol application. The IRB defines engagement based on involvement in any research activities including recruitment, consenting, data collection, data analysis, answering questions about the project, etc.

Background checks
Some schools require research personnel to undergo background checks. For example, both MMSD and Verona School District require background checks for members of the study team engaging in research activities in their district or with their students/staff.

Use of instructional time for research purposes
Many school districts will not allow research activities to take place during normal class time.  Please consider this as part of your research design.

Parental consent is required for minors to be included as research subjects. It is important to plan for an appropriate method to obtain consent from parents (i.e. send the study information and consent forms to parents for review, etc.). Often, researchers will ask teachers or school staff to facilitate this process by sending home recruitment material and consent forms with students in their ‘backpack mail’. You will also need to plan for a method of collecting the forms from the parents, without engaging staff.

Minor assent is also required prior to including minors as research subjects. Once parental consent has been obtained, consented students can be asked to provide assent. The assent process follows the consent process, and should be similar format/procedures.  The assent document should be appropriate for the subject population (reading level, assent procedures, etc.).

See IRB Guidance: Research with Minors for more information

Use of Video or Audio Recording
Many schools place limitations on the use of video or audio recording in classrooms. In addition, only consented and assented students should be captured on the recording. The school will want to see your video/audio recording procedure, and the IRB requires that it is included as part of your description of the scope of research to potential sites.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records maintained by schools.  Educational records include class assignments, grades, GPA, attendance, disciplinary reports, individual student educational plans, etc.
A researcher who has natural access to student records as part of their employment cannot access those records for research purposes without appropriate consent.  Parental consent is required for the release of FERPA protected student records for minors.

See IRB Guidance: FERPA for more information

Keywords:K-12, school sites, school district, classroom site permission, background checks, instructional time, engagement, FERPA, video, audio, conditional, approve with administrative hold   Doc ID:42991
Owner:Casey P.Group:Education and Social/Behavioral Science IRB
Created:2014-08-19 11:45 CSTUpdated:2021-08-20 10:13 CST
Sites:Education and Social/Behavioral Science IRB, VCRGE and Graduate School
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