Northwestern and two other schools will share a nearly $5 million grant to create a new national center to study how educational leaders — including school district supervisors and principals — use research when making decisions.

The national center, the first of its kind, also will study what can be done to make research findings more useful and relevant for education leaders.

Northwestern is partnering with the University of Colorado Boulder and Harvard University to establish the center.

“We know very little about how people in district offices and schools actually use evidence from research studies to inform their decisions,” said CU-Boulder professor Bill Penuel, lead investigator for the project.

The new National Center for Research in Policy and Practice aims to change that by focusing on three areas: measuring current research use in schools; identifying what conditions affect when research is used; and determining ways that research could be made more meaningful for educational leaders through long-term partnerships between researchers and practitioners.

Co-principal investigators include Cynthia Coburn and James Spillane of SESP at Northwestern, Derek Briggs of CU-Boulder and Heather Hill of Harvard University.

“Research use is an incredibly timely issue as policymakers and funders increasingly call for school and district leaders to use research in their decision making,” Coburn said. “We see this as an opportunity to contribute to the national discussion of research use.”

The total amount of the grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is $4,995,353, which will cover the full cost of the center.

The center’s approach will be guided by what little is known already about research use by educational leaders — that opportunities for leaders to interact with colleagues and researchers are critical, Penuel said.

“Those interactions may take place when district leaders deliberate, when they attempt to persuade colleagues to a course of action or when researchers and practitioners collaborate on important problems of practice,” he said. “Learning about research use will require us to study those interactions.”

Coburn’s research relates directly to the relationship between instructional policy and teachers’ classroom practices in urban schools.

She has investigated this issue in a series of studies that tackle critical issues facing public schools: the relationship between reading policy and teachers’ classroom practice, the scale-up of innovative mathematics curricula, data use at the district level, and the relationship between research and practice for school improvement.

In 2011, Coburn was awarded the Early Career Award from the American Educational Research Association in recognition of her contributions to the field of educational research.

Spillane, the Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change at SESP, has published extensively on issues of education policy, policy implementation, school reform and school leadership. His work explores the policy implementation process at the state, district, school and classroom levels, focusing on intergovernmental and policy-practice relations.

He also studies organizational leadership and change, conceptualizing organizational leadership as a distributed practice. He has authored several books, including most recently, Distributed Leadership, Distributed Leadership in Practice, and Diagnosis and Design for School Improvement.

Spillane is a faculty associate at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern and was recently awarded the Van Steeg Research Fellowship.

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