School & District Management

What Makes the Difference in Whether Districts Use or Ignore Research?

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 25, 2017 3 min read
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When schools struggle, bringing in new evidence might mean upturning years of practice or ousting well-loved programs or administrators. Successfully using that sort of evidence calls for leaders who want to learn and improve along with their staff members.

That’s the upshot of a new study of district research partnerships published in the American Educational Research Journal. Researchers from the University of Washington and RTI International tracked 23 administrators in six districts of an unnamed state—ranging in size from 2,000 to 50,000 students—that were attempting to implement new school improvement programs backed by research. In particular, they analyzed when district administrators were willing to push back against set practices based on new research, and whether it helped to work with outside partners, such as research groups.

They found that more than half of the administrators had little understanding of the research going in, and showed no growth over the 18 months of the study. Instead, the district administrators followed behaviors or memorized questions described by the research, such as observing a principal’s work and providing feedback, but without understanding why they were doing so and often missing the point. Districts that worked with a technical assistance organization were more likely to show some growth in their use of research-backed practices, but their help was not enough to fundamentally change district practices.

“It really surprised us, that great teaching by an outside support provider can still have a really limited impact,” said Meredith Honig, an education policy professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the lead author of the study. “It’s not really a surprise, but it’s a dilemma for the school support industry. District leadership is important and arguably no amount of contracting out is going to build capacity.”

Honig also found that the researchers and community groups working with schools focused on training school staff members, but did not plan for how district staff would continue to train and evaluate themselves once the project was complete.

“We ask [research partners], do you have it as a goal to build district capacity, and they all say. ‘Yes, we want to work ourselves out of a job.’ And I said, so what’s your strategy? And none of them had one; not one.”

District Leadership and Reflection

In districts that successfully improved based on research, superintendents and central office staff reflected on their own practices rather than focusing only on school staff. “It’s not just any training,” Honig said. “Some bosses do professional development, but it’s not from a teaching-and-learning stance. We see again and again how powerful it is when a superintendent says, ‘Hey, this is hard, but I’m learning it with you.’ It’s such a strong signal that it sends, that the district is focused on continuous learning.”

Districts were also more likely to improve when central office staff modeled research-backed practices and connected them to specific goals. “One thing that helps people cross over is really personal feedback,” Honig said. “They all get the ideas, but it wasn’t until [research partners] observed [principals] leading and said, ‘Here is what you are doing, but here is what the research says,’ that we saw change. Districts often don’t make that kind of investment in their leaders; they are only just starting to make that kind of investment in their teachers.”

Researchers and educators with the National Network for Education Research will be discussing how to build more effective research-practice partnerships later this week in Nashville.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.