In 2014, IES funded one of two R&D Centers on Knowledge Utilization (or Knowledge/Evidence Use) to explore how 1) education researchers can make their work more relevant and useful to practitioners located in state and local education agencies and in individual schools, 2) the work of practitioners can inform research efforts, and 3) practitioners can make decisions based on research evidence. The National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently completed its grant. Corinne Alfeld, a Program Officer in IES NCER, talked with Principal Investigator Bill Penuel about the Center’s findings and recommendations. The full list of Center staff and collaborators can be found on NCRPP’s website.
What were the outcomes of your IES-funded KU R&D Center?
Our center studied how school and district leaders accessed and used research through a nationally representative survey and through case studies of school district decision making, research-practice partnerships, and a professional association of state leaders in science. Across all studies, we found that leaders highly valued research. At the same time, we found some things that might be surprising to many researchers:
- Most leaders accessed research through their relationships and networks rather than through web sites, journal articles, or resources like the What Works Clearinghouse. The most common ways leaders accessed research was through their own professional associations, conferences, and colleagues in education settings. In some cases, these networks provided leaders with access to high-quality research. In our study of the professional association of science leaders, leaders cited National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine consensus study reports as the most shared and used among members.
- Leaders used research for a variety of purposes and for a range of decision-making activities not only to make decisions about what programs to adopt. Many leaders, for example, design professional development for educators for which there may be no program to adopt. In our case studies of district research use, we found that leaders did rely on research—conceptually—to inform their design activities. Research use was embedded within the ongoing decision-making routines for designing, implementing, and evaluating professional development activities.
- Leaders did not turn to impact studies of individual interventions when they looked for research. Instead, they more commonly turned to books and other kinds of publications that provided syntheses or summaries of research. A common thread was that these sources of research provided frameworks for action, broken down into clear steps they could follow.
How can researchers use your findings to improve their dissemination efforts?
Despite the value leaders placed on research, there is clearly room for improvement with respect to dissemination. More than half of respondents to our survey said that by the time research was published, it was no longer valuable to them. Here are two strategies that researchers might find useful.
- Long-term research-practice partnerships (RPPs) were sites where leaders found research to be both timely and relevant to them. These partnerships come in different shapes and sizes and have different goals. However, all engage educators in helping define the very questions that will be addressed in the research, and some also engage in co-design and testing of interventions to address persistent problems of practice and to work toward visions of more equitable systems of education.
- Embedding researchers within leaders’ professional organizations can help disseminate research in a timely manner. These members present regularly at association meetings and conferences. They also participate in committees, where they develop tools to inform ongoing leadership activities.
What these strategies have in common is that dissemination is not an afterthought. In fact, dissemination is not a good word for what these researchers are doing. A better word is engagement. Researchers are engaging educators throughout the process of research and development, not just at the end.
How can your findings be used to improve practitioner access to and use or consideration of research findings?
Many of the strategies for engagement involve educators engaging with various aspects of research directly. Years ago, Weiss and colleagues described this as its own form of research use, called process use. Engaging educators in the actual research process does something that is important for supporting research use, namely giving them time to make sense of research and its implications for their work.
We found evidence that involvement in RPPs for educators was helpful to their own policymaking and practice. More than three-quarters, for example, said that their external partners shaped the design of professional development, and many also said that their partnership helped to integrate newly developed practices in the partnership.
What are your plans for future work in this area?
At present, NCRPP is involved in two exciting new projects. The first is a project funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, which focuses on developing and validating measures to assess the effectiveness of RPPs. We’re using a framework developed by Erin Henrick and colleagues to evaluate RPPs, and we’ve gathered survey and interview data from more than 60 RPPs. Our goal is to develop formative measures to help RPPs evaluate progress on each of the five dimensions of the framework.
The second project is funded by the Wallace Foundation to study and support equity-centered leadership and districts in forming partnerships with researchers as they develop and test strategies for creating equity-centered leadership pipelines. Both projects are being undertaken in collaboration with the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships.
What do you see as the next steps for this field?
While it is tempting to suggest “more research is needed,” what is needed is an “evidence-informed” approach to evidence use—the application of what we already know about evidence use when it comes to policy and practice. That requires us to shift focus away from imagining that better, plain-language research briefs will help us improve research use. Instead, we need to encourage researchers to engage in more substantive ways with practice throughout the research process, to improve its relevance and timeliness.
We also need to embrace a broader conception of the kinds of evidence and information that can inform decision making, one that reflects the range of information that leaders currently use and could turn to. Of particular importance is considering the experiences of those students, families, and communities to whom we owe a great education debt as important sources for decision making. If we take a broader view of evidence, a new question emerges: How can we consider and integrate different sources of evidence in a way that is informed by values such as equity and justice into decision making? This is the sort of question I hope the field can pursue in the future.
Findings from the 2015 IES-funded Center for Research Use in Education (CRUE) at the University of Delaware will be highlighted in a blog in 2022. Stay tuned! If you have further questions, please contact Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov.