Jim Spillane Receives $1 Million Spencer Award for School System Research

Jim Spillane Receives $1 Million Spencer Award for School System Research

James Spillane

James Spillane, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, received a $1 million Lyle Spencer Research Award for a comparative study of school systems. In an effort to develop needed knowledge for education reform, Spillane’s research will investigate the relationship between various types of school systems and improving instruction.

Lyle Spencer Research Awards are intended for “intellectually ambitious research” for improving the practice of education, according to the Spencer Foundation. Committed to strengthening education, the Foundation seeks “the most challenging, original, and constructive scholarship and research” for these awards. Spillane’s co-investigator is Donald Peurach of the University of Michigan School of Education.

“If the creation and redesign of school systems remains central to education policy, as seems likely, it would help to know more about how different systems design, organize and conduct instruction and related practices, and to what effect,” says Spillane. “No knowledge about school systems could be more important.”

The researchers note significant structural and organizational differences in systems, including the formal organization, infrastructure and social organization — with varying effects. Their study considers geo-political systems, such as public school systems maintained by state and local governments; systems maintained by non-government agencies, such as Catholic, Jewish and Montessori schools; and hybrids such as some charter systems and academic entities like International Baccalaureate.

In defining instruction, the researchers will be looking beyond the intellectual quality of instruction to also consider behavior, participants’ treatment of each other and evaluation.

Specifically, the three-year “Comparative Study of School Systems” will focus on how six school systems within a metropolitan region design and organize to maintain and improve the quality of English language arts instruction. A team of researchers will interview teachers and school leaders, observe school work practice, and analyze evidence such as academic tasks and student work.

“Though system building is a central focus of U.S. educational reform, we know little about the relationships between school systems and instruction or improving instruction,” says Spillane. “The research we propose will improve understanding of the relationship between systems, instruction and improving instruction.”

At Northwestern University, Spillane is the chair of the Human Development and Social Policy doctoral program at the School of Education and Social Policy, a professor in the Learning Sciences program and a faculty associate at the Institute for Policy Research.

A world expert on school leadership and educational policy, Spillane is the author of several books, most recently Challenging Standards about leadership in the Common Core era. His books also include Distributed Leadership, Distributed Leadership in Practice, and Diagnosis and Design for School Improvement.

Spillane’s work explores the policy implementation process at the state, school district, school and classroom levels. In addition to his policy work, he also studies and writes on organizational leadership and change.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 2/3/16