Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Hidden Gold: Research Use in the Age of Evidence-Based Policy

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

William Penuel1, David Sherer2, Caitlin Farrell1, Heather C. Hill2, Derek Briggs1 and Charles Bibilos3, (1)University of Colorado, Boulder, (2)Harvard University, (3)University of Colorado - Boulder
High-quality educational research that could shed light on effective policies and practices is increasingly accessible to districts and schools. Since its establishment in 2002, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education has funded dozens of field-initiated efficacy and scale-up studies of interventions, released multiple evaluation studies of major policy initiatives, supported rigorous studies of programs through the Regional Educational Laboratories, and funded training grants to prepare new scholars to conduct more scientific research in education. The What Works Clearinghouse, which provides summaries of evidence about interventions’ effectiveness and research syntheses intended to guide practice, is an effort to increase access to scientific research. 

Providing access is only the first step to using research to improve student outcomes. Districts and schools must then use this research to improve the quality of learning opportunities they provide to students. At present, there is a small body of inquiry on how district and school leaders use research. The results from such studies are consistent: research is rarely used, and not in the linear fashion imagined by most (Coburn, Honig, & Stein, 2009; Contandriopoulos, Lemire, Denis, & Tremblay, 2010). Research use involves interactive processes, including contention, persuasion, negotiation, and sensemaking (Amara, Ouimet, & Landry, 2004).

The present paper describes an effort to develop a better understanding of the interactive processes involved in research use, or what Tseng (2007) has called “the demand side” of research use before we can improve district and school leaders’ research use. Our research team is developing and testing a survey instrument focused on:

  • how district and school leaders use research in making decisions
  • leaders’ attitudes toward research
  • leaders’ skill in evaluating research quality, and
  • organizational processes associated with research use

Our effort builds on prior efforts both inside and outside education to study research use, especially Weiss and Buculavas’ (1980) typology of uses of research: instrumental (use for a specific decision), political (use to justify a particular course of action, often one already taken), conceptual (use to gain insight into issues or develop new solutions), and imposed (use mandated by law or policy). In addition, our items are intended to elicit leaders’ judgments about the relevance, usefulness, credibility, and comprehensibility of research, characteristics past research has linked to higher levels of evaluation use (Johnson et al., 2009). Our items to elicit skills of research draw on earlier efforts by Means and colleagues to develop scenario-based assessments of educational leaders’ skill in analyzing data (Means, Padilla, & Gallagher, 2010), and our items related to organizational processes also draw on recent research on data use in education (Coburn & Turner, 2011; Spillane, Parise, & Sherer, 2011).

Our paper will report on both on what we have learned from pilot testing the instrument and also on patterns of research use among a nationally representative survey of roughly 600 district and school leaders. We will also highlight any meaningful differences among responses by district role or connections to sources of research.