Today, many education researchers aspire to produce research that is useful to educators and policymakers (e.g., the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, the Regional Educational Laboratories, the National Center for Scaling Up Effective Schools). Federal policies and programs also emphasize the importance of conducting and producing research that can impact policy and practice. These policies often emphasize the need for educational leaders to rely on evidence of impact from well-designed studies about what policies, programs, and practices to adopt.
In our recent study of district decision making, educational leaders painted a picture of their jobs as ones where research plays a role in a wide variety of activities, going much beyond making decisions about program adoption. This is good news for those interested in research use, as it means there are more and varied windows of opportunity where research could potentially have an impact in district leaders’ ongoing work. We interviewed over 60 district leaders in 3 school districts to understand when, during the course of their work, research proved useful for them.
When is research useful for district leaders?
First, district leaders drew upon research as part of their instructional leadership activities. They used research in the professional development they structured for others, such as staff in the central office, including members of their team or department, and with school sites.
Second, educational leaders looked to research when they designed district-wide strategies and programs. Many leaders reported that the research offered an overall framework to structure the vision and mission for the district as well as guide decision making in particular areas.
Third, we heard a few instances of district leaders referring to research as useful to them in the context of selecting programs.
Fourth, district leaders noted that many studies addressed concerns about implementation of a policy or district improvement strategy. The terms and ideas from research became part of the shared vocabulary for new joint efforts across the district, a “common set of vocabulary” for implementation efforts.
There were other things leaders said about why they turned to research as well. Several leaders told us that research had provided valuable insights about content-specific learning and effective pedagogical approaches that broadly informed their work. They saw keeping up with research as a necessary part of their continued growth as professionals.
Broadening our definition of “research use”
Together, these findings suggest the need to broaden the definition of “research use” beyond the activity of selecting among programs. There are a number of activities for which district leaders use research, from guiding their own learning to providing frameworks for guiding the design of professional development for principals and teachers. These findings paint a picture of district leaders’ work where research – broadly defined – holds promise for broader influence than currently expected. If policies and programs to support research use are to be effective, they will likely need to take into greater account these varied uses.
We thank the the William T. Grant Foundation for their support for this project.