Study Finds School Leaders Widely Use Research

Study Finds School Leaders Widely Use Research

James Spilland and Cynthia CoburnA new, sweeping national study of educational research use among school and district leaders finds generally positive attitudes toward the value of research and frequent use of research for decision-making. The report was published by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP), which is funded by Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

Focusing at the local level, the latest study is the largest survey yet of educational research use. A nationally representative sample of 733 school and district leaders from 485 school districts and 45 states completed the survey. Nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated they use research frequently or all the time.

“It is encouraging to see that education research is informing education practice,” said Thomas Brock, commissioner for the National Center for Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences in Washington, D.C. “As the Every Student Succeeds Act is implemented, education researchers and practitioners will need to work together even more to identify barriers to student success and develop and implement effective solutions.”

“While our initial report offers cause for optimism about the role of social science research in instructional policymaking, the critical issue is understanding not so much that research is used but how it is used. Northwestern researchers are leading the Center's next study exploring this issue through a study of instructional policymaking in four of the 30 largest school districts in the US," explains SESP professor James Spillane, who along with SESP professor Cynthia Coburn co-leads the center with University of Colorado and Harvard University.

“Prior studies of research use in social policy decision making have focused mostly on federal and to some extent state policymakers; our research focuses on whether and how research is used in policymaking at the local level — the school district — the key administrative unit for public schooling in the US,” Spillane adds.

Educational leaders who were surveyed said they often relied on research to inform decisions on what programs to offer and how to allocate resources, and they also depended on research to inform their understanding of an issue. For instance, 71 percent indicated that research had expanded their views of an issue. Another 68 percent reported they used research to convince others of a particular point of view.

“We wanted to know how educational leaders are currently seeking and using research,” said Bill Penuel, NCRPP principal investigator and professor of learning sciences and human development at University of Colorado-Boulder, where the Center is based. “As researchers ourselves, we are encouraged that leaders say they value and use research often. What is surprising is the variety of ways that leaders use research beyond selecting programs with evidence of success. Leaders are using research to design professional development for teachers and to monitor implementation of programs. We need to figure out how best to support these kinds of research use.”

When asked to name research that was useful in their work, more than half of the respondents named specific studies, most often focused on instructional practices. The majority of respondents named books, followed by reports and peer-reviewed journal articles. Their professional associations were the top source of research information.

Overall, respondents reported positive attitudes towards the value of educational research, with nearly all endorsing the idea that research can address practical problems and that researchers provide a valuable service to educational leaders. However, respondents indicated that the time lag between conducting and publishing research can decrease its usefulness.

“As researchers, ultimately we want to produce research that is in partnership with and informed by our colleagues in the schools and districts,” said Heather Hill, NCRPP co-principal investigator and Jerome T. Murphy professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “This national snapshot provides a picture of current research use as well as possible avenues for better connecting researchers and practitioners.”

For more information, view the report and survey instrument.

By University of Colorado-Boulder and SESP
Last Modified: 5/7/21