Researchers, policymakers, and foundations often wonder why some research ends up being influential in school district policy and practice while other research is not. As part of a project funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, we asked over 60 district leaders in three school districts to identify pieces of research they have found valuable and to explain why that research was useful to them. From these conversations emerge three qualities of research that may matter for its use in district policymaking and practice: relevance, credibility, and accessibility.
District leaders told us that relevance was by far the most important quality of research. Nearly four-fifths of all leaders we talked with said that research that was connected to problems of practice was the key reason they found a piece of research useful. For instance, one cabinet level leader told us:
“[Research] has to be examined in the context of what you need … it can’t be mythology-based, it’s got to be reality-based. … I think you look very specifically at research around specific problems that need to be solved, not around wholesale [research], pretending that the research that happened over here can be picked up and dropped on top of a school district without thinking it through.”
Other leaders similarly noted that research was useful when it is “connected to practice, very concretely” or when it is “relevant to what we’re doing,” like thinking about how to plan professional development for teachers or school leaders, crafting or revising policies, or for their own individual learning.
Research was perceived to be relevant when it could provide frameworks related to current initiatives or issues facing the district. One leader said that Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, and colleagues’ book, Instructional Rounds, provided their district with useful guidance for conducting classroom visits. Another explained that Anthony Bryk and colleagues’ research on Chicago school reform was useful to them. Though this book included many empirical findings, what was valuable to this district cabinet leader was the framework the book provided for organizing improvement efforts in low-performing schools in the district.
District leaders also said credibility was an important quality of research that was useful. Nearly half of the district leaders we spoke with cited the reputation of the researcher and/or their institution as contributing to their belief that a particular piece of research was credible. As one leader put it, “I would see who [research] was published from. There’re many authors out there that are really known, so if [the research] comes from those particular people who have been in education in all my classes in undergrad and even in graduate school, I know they’re valid.”
Sometimes credibility was linked to the quality of the study design. District leaders were attuned to concerns researchers might have, such as the sample size and whether the study examined student outcomes. Leaders also noted that the external validity or applicability of findings to districts like theirs mattered to them. Many commented on how the match between the settings studied in published work and their own district context play a big role in whether that research can inform their work.
Researchers know that it is important to present findings in accessible language, if they want to reach practitioners. But what makes research accessible is much more than language, according to district leaders in our study. Of particular importance was access to researchers themselves. One district administrator talked about how a collaborating research partner regularly “brought research” to their meetings which was helpful. District leaders, across the board, saw their research partners as important resources and representatives to the world of research and provided access to valued expertise and resources.
Directly asking district leaders about what makes research useful sheds some light on the qualities of research that may matter. These themes build on and contribute to the work done by others, as well (check out Carol Weiss, Elizabeth Farley Ripple, or Jack Schneider for more.)
Doing so can point to differences between researchers’ and district leaders’ definitions of “research,” and it can highlight the work that we need do as a field to strengthen connections between research and practice. As we carry out our research and outreach activities as part of NCRPP, we hope to identify successful examples of how internal conditions in districts and external partnerships with researchers can facilitate these connections.