Cynthia Coburn Champions Education Research to Improve Schools

Cynthia Coburn Champions Education Research to Improve Schools

Cynthia Coburn

When Cynthia Coburn started investigating in the early 2000s how teachers, school leaders and policy makers use educational research to improve student outcomes, she was hard-pressed to find a journal or other outlet to publish her research. The truth was, few people at the time were looking at the nuts and bolts of how findings from educational research actually influence classroom practices and ultimately impact student learning.

Missing from a national, hand-wringing debate over the state of public schools and efforts at school reform was indeed a body of research on the use of research, a kind of invaluable meta-research that can make a world of difference to students. All that is beginning to change.

Today Coburn is part of a renaissance in the field of educational research. She frequently gives talks on research use and on partnerships between educational researchers and practitioners (namely, teachers, principals and district leaders), which are called research-practice partnerships. She has spoken at many meetings of educational foundations, briefings in Washington, D.C., and webinars of the American Youth Policy Forum. She will give the keynote address at the British Educational Research Association on this topic in September 2015. Her articles appear regularly in journals, and she has written for and edited books on educational research use.

“It feels like there is starting to be a scholarly field where there wasn’t a field before,” says Coburn, SESP professor of education and social policy.

Turning research into action
In fact, last summer the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm at the U.S. Department of Education, awarded nearly $5 million to create the first-ever National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, which will study how educational leaders use research when making decisions. Coburn and fellow SESP professor James Spillane will work with colleagues at the University of Colorado and Harvard University to measure research use in schools, identify conditions that affect the use of research, and discover ways to make research more meaningful for educational leaders through long-term partnerships.

“Ultimately, our goal is to contribute to the growing understanding of the factors that enable or constrain research use in educational policymaking, and importantly, create a set of tools and resources for practitioners to foster research use in their local settings,” Coburn says.

While pinpointing research use in any applied field — say, medicine, technology or public policy — can be difficult, it is especially thorny in education. Coburn points to a cultural chasm between educational researchers and practitioners. People working in the two professions tend to have disparate backgrounds, organizational structures, status levels and goals. Such differences make partnerships tough and can impede the flow of important data, ideas and feedback.

For example, when researchers discover policies that can have potential to improve education, how can their findings make their way from academia into classrooms? Likewise, when teachers have important feedback based on classroom experience, how can their hard-won knowledge benefit researchers, who typically lack day-to-day experience with public school systems? The situation can be complicated, to say the least.

Coburn is determinedly working her way through this maze. She studies the relationship between instructional policy and teachers’ classroom practices in urban schools, in particular how research can be used to scale up reform efforts. Despite the challenges facing relationships between researchers and practitioners, Coburn believes that long-term partnerships between school districts and research institutions may be one route to profound, lasting educational reform.

The roots of education research
This field of research has its roots in the late 1960s and 70s, during the years after President Lyndon B. Johnson rolled out educational components of the Great Society, which allotted considerable federal aid to public education. “The federal government required policy evaluations of the programs, and this trickled down to state programs,” Coburn explains. “The field of educational research was born at this time. There was a burst of energy and essential understanding of research use, with very strong research done by people like Carol Weiss. But then for some reason research on the use of research went underground.”

Interest in research revived in the 1990s and gathered momentum with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required districts and schools to adopt only programs for which there was scientific evidence. That focus on research has continued to grow during President Obama’s administration, as concerns persist about the state of public education.
“Researchers and to some extent practitioners would really like policy makers to use research to inform their decisions. It’s a source of information that can assist them in developing effective policies,” Coburn says.

Probing good partnerships
Recently Coburn has studied long-term relationships between school district leaders and researchers, specifically how they join to explore problems of practice and solutions for improving district outcomes. She co-authored a policy paper for the W. T. Grant Foundation, which supports research to improve the educational settings.

Despite the challenges facing research-practice partnerships — such as difficulties in bridging different cultural worlds, establishing trust, and balancing local relevance with wider applicability — Coburn sees reason for hope. She points to efforts such as the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a collaboration between researchers at New York University and the New York City Department of Education. Since 2008 the alliance has worked to improve achievement and preparation in high schools and middle schools, create contexts that support effective teaching, and share data that gives researchers valuable insight into what happens in the classroom. One district administrator speaks of trust in the researchers: “We have a very broad and deep data- sharing relationship. … We’ve arranged to give them access to just about everything that we are functionally and legally allowed to give them, with the purpose of allowing the Research Alliance to do independent research on New York City Schools.”

Coburn sees another success story in a decade-long partnership between University of Washington researchers and the Bellevue School District. Recently the partnership has made progress on redesigning elementary science units and collecting data related to teaching and learning. A district staff member reports, “The level of excitement and the ease at which students use evidence to support thinking is one indicator to me, as a former fifth grade teacher and a science curriculum developer, that there is some real buy-in.”

Helping school improve
If the content of Coburn’s research is complex, her motivation for pursuing it is not. She draws from her childhood experiences as a student in Philadelphia’s struggling public schools. “I went to schools with limited facilities, and I remember what it was like. I have this deep commitment to public schools. I’m not willing to give up on them.”

“I entered the field of research with the goal of doing something that was relevant and would help public schools. A lot of people have those instincts, but doing something about them is a long and winding road,” Coburn says. In the last few years the efforts of Coburn, like-minded researchers and a variety of institutions have coalesced. The founding of a new national center devoted to studying research-practice partnerships and an emerging body of scholarship may signal a watershed in the way researchers and educators approach reform. Coburn emphasizes, “We all want people to use the best information available to make decisions.”

By Lisa Stein
Last Modified: 2/3/16