Lok-Sze Wong, Alice Huguet, Christopher W. Harrison, Cynthia E. Coburn, and James P. Spillane
There are many efforts in the field to connect research to practice in schools. Some initiatives focus on the individual practitioner, building their knowledge and skills to engage with research. Other efforts aim at improving access to research by creating short research briefs or easy-to-read summaries of bodies of literature.
In our work at the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP), we found that supporting research use in a school setting requires taking an organizational perspective. By organizational, we mean considering the complex contexts within which teachers and school leaders work to pinpoint opportunities to bridge research and practice. To do so first requires an understanding of how educators make instructional decisions within a school setting. Then, I argue that key organizational dimensions shape these decision-making processes, broadening or narrowing the opportunities for educators to engage with research in school settings.
The decision-making process and research use in schools
We know that decision making in schools is a social process (Weiss & Bucuvalas, 1980). It can include administrators, coaches, and teachers making multiple decisions. Some decisions may be made by an individual, such as a teacher making an instructional decision for their classroom. If we unpack the teacher’s decision-making process, though, we see that even these decisions are influenced by interactions with other people inside and outside of their school. The decision may be influenced by decisions made within the teacher’s team, school leaders’ instructional decisions, guidance provided by central office leaders, and events occurring in students’ communities. Decisions “accrete” (Weiss, 1980), meaning they are a series of choices and actions connected over time across departments, grade levels, and programs (e.g., general education, special education, English learners) (Hannaway, 1989; Kennedy, 1982; Majone, 1989). In our figure, arrows indicate how some decisions connect with others. Further, research – represented by the “R” – can play a role in some decisions.
School-level factors that shape research use in decision making
The decision-making process is shaped by people’s authority (McAdam & Scott, 2005; Scott & Davis, 2007) and status (Balkwell, 1994; Dornbusch & Scott, 1974). For instance, teachers and other school leaders with authority can intentionally or unintentionally shape the decision-making process (Wong, 2019). This includes bringing in information such as research to the process and influencing how their colleagues use that information during decision making (Coburn, 2005). Similarly, people with higher status in a group might find their perspectives are privileged during decision making (Coburn, Bae, & Turner, 2008). Teachers with less experience, for instance, may defer to the judgement of their more experienced colleagues on how to use and interpret research.
Organizational routines are another school-level factor that shapes decision-making. Organizational routines are formalized, repeated patterns of interactions among members of an organization (Feldman & Pentland, 2003). In schools, routines include activities such as school improvement planning and designing & facilitating professional development. Organizational routines shape who collaborates with whom about what, determining which individuals participate in decision making and what research and other information can be brought to the table during a discussion.
District-school arrangements also shape school-level decision making
Like school leaders with authority and status, central office leaders can shape the decision-making process and influence how research and other information are used in schools. We focus on three relationships between schools and central offices that help explain how central office leaders shape decision making and research use within schools.
To begin, districts differ in the jurisdiction that central offices and schools have over decision-making. In districts with site-based decision-making policies, central offices may have limited formal power over instructional matters while schools have vast decision-making responsibilities. Jurisdiction can also vary within a district. For example, some districts grant school leaders more or less autonomy based on student achievement scores. Jurisdiction may be formal or informal. We found in a recent analysis that even though school leaders in two districts had formal jurisdiction over most aspects of instruction, their central office leaders’ successfully used persuasive strategies to encourage them to make decisions in line with central office preferences (Wong, Coburn, & Kamal, in press).
Similar to school-level organizational routines, district-school organizational routines are opportunities for central office and school leaders to collaborate and share information such as research. District-school organizational routines influence which central office and school staff are involved in discussions, what research and other information are used, and in what ways.
District-school informal social networks provide opportunities for central office and school leaders reach out to each other as needed. For example, school leaders may reach out to central office leaders they know well for advice on a decision. The research and other information central office leaders offer can then shape school-level decision making processes.
Our framework opens up school-level decision making to include the impact that organizational context can have on whether and educators use research within their decision making. District-school and school-level organizational routines, informal social connections, jurisdiction, status, and authority all mediate whether educators learn about research and how, if at all, they use the research in their decision making. In addition to individual and access factors, we can examine these organizational factors to understand and better support research use in schools. Viewing research use through an organizational lens helps us situate and contextualize whether and how research is used in instructional decision making.
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Wong, L., Coburn, C. E., & Kamal, A. (in press). How central office leaders influence school leaders’ decision making: Unpacking power dynamics in two site-based decision-making systems. Peabody Journal of Education.