Spillane, Coburn Headline International School Leadership Symposium

Spillane, Coburn Headline International School Leadership Symposium

coburn and spillaneNorthwestern University professors Cynthia Coburn and James Spillane

Northwestern University professors Cynthia Coburn and James Spillane delivered keynote speeches during the International Symposium on Perspectives on/in School Leadership at the Danish School of Education in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

The event brought together junior and senior researchers to explore “fundamental but often forgotten perspectives” on schools and school leadership and the gaps in school leadership training programs, research and policy.

Coburn, who studies the relationship between instructional policy and teachers' classroom practices in urban schools, discussed how educational leaders actually use research and data when they make decisions.

Educational decision making is traditionally viewed as linear and rational; policymakers weigh a range of possible solutions and draw on evidence to weigh the pros and cons of different approaches.

Her research suggests that district leaders, in fact, draw on a wide range of reasons for justifying their claims; only a small percentage are related to data and research. “The most salient reasons are those related to constraints: stakeholder and policy demands as well as practical realities in schools,” she said. “Principles, beliefs, and values are central to argumentation, often intersecting with invocations of research and data.”

By focusing on the actual reasons school leaders used to make decisions, Coburn illustrated how the process of using research and data is “deeply considered, complex, and contingent.”

Spillane, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, studies the relationships between government policy and local practice at the classroom, school and system levels. His talk addressed the challenges educational leaders face while managing work dilemmas in the face of a vast array of differing expectations, demands, and formal requirements related to a school’s daily operations.

Over the last several decades, the US education sector has dramatically changed as reformers and policymakers pushed for standardization, test-based accountability, and evidence-based decision making, Spillane said. “These rationalization efforts have transformed the school environment, pressing technically rational ideas about decision-making in education.”

The event featured five keynote speakers. Read their abstracts here.

In addition to Coburn and Spillane, the speakers included Helen Gunter, professor of educational policy at the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester; Neil Powell, a guest professor at the Swedish International Centre of Education for Sustainable Development; and Lejf Moos, who has been researching and teaching school leadership, organizing education and global governance for many years in Danish, Nordic and International projects with many colleagues.  


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 1/8/20