Building Systems for Effective Research Use

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

In the world of school improvement, one concept rains supreme: Systems. By establishing clearly defined systems, your institution can better see changes, study innovations, and sustain improvements well into the future. Making the shift to evidence-informed school improvement requires the development of systems too. Education leaders who want to implement evidence-informed school improvement must develop sustainable systems to allow evidence use to thrive. In this post, I’ll provide an overview of the four elements of a healthy research use system and give you some tips on how to implement them.

Before we dig into the system model, I want to say that this is a start-up model. As with any school improvement system, your established system will grow and change over time as you respond to your team and design new elements. If you already have a research use system, contact me! I would love to hear about it!

System Element One: Capacity

Before you can implement an evidence use system in your school, you must first build capacity within your team. The unfortunate reality is that most educators and education leaders have had extremely limited prior training on research use. So, the first thing you need to do is give your team the skills to use research effectively.

There are two types of knowledge your team needs to build; content knowledge and application knowledge. Content knowledge represents the technical pieces of research that your team will need to know to be able to understand the studies they will access and read. Content knowledge includes research vocabulary, an exploration of the various established study designs, and a discussion on how to recognize problems in studies.

Application knowledge includes the skills necessary to apply the results of studies to daily practice. This includes elements such as understanding statistical outputs, synthesizing multiple pieces of often conflicting research, and identifying key elements of a study to ensure implementation fidelity. Without application knowledge, your team will not be able to sufficiently use research to enhance their practice.

Once you have trained your team up, another major element of capacity is protected time. Research use is one of those things that will simply fall by the wayside within the context of an educational day. Leaders who want to improve research use and transition to evidence-informed school improvement must provide time during the workday for this work to happen. I recommend embedding it into professional learning community (PLC) meetings.

Finally, as you transition your team to evidence-informed school improvement, you should identify the high-fliers and establish them as mentors. Create a mentorship program in which new teachers or those struggling with research use have someone to turn to when they need help. It is really important to identify someone outside of the leadership team to serve in this role. They will have greater flexibility and will be able to build higher levels of trust since they do not serve in a supervisory role.

System Element Two: Access

Research has shown that educators often lack access to quality sources of research. Without it, they simply cannot transition to evidence-informed school improvement. As you build out your system for evidence use, make sure you are intentional about creating access to research.

Database and journal subscriptions are the natural starting point here. Check with your school librarian to see if there are opportunities for your institution to subscribe directly to academic databases that can provide resources. Your public library or state education agency may also be able to point you in the right direction here. If budget is a concern, make sure you train your teachers on proper use of the ERIC database – it’s free and very thorough.

Building relationships with research brokers is also a great way to increase access to research. Research brokers are organizations that help curate and disseminate research out to their audiences. There are many think tanks and nonprofit organizations that act as research brokers and can help you with this work. One word of caution, research brokers usually have their own agenda and may not always provide you with the most thorough or well-rounded examples of research.

You should also consider adding research conferences and professional associations to your repertoire. As an educator, you likely have a series of conferences or events that you attend annually. Consider finding a research conference or professional association that you can engage in. Not only will you get to hear the most recent and relevant research in your field, but you will also get to network directly with researchers. I recommend you check out the American Education Research Association, the Association of Education Finance and Policy, or the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.

System Element Three: Engagement

Research use works best when your team is truly engaged in research. As you build your system, look for options to conduct research with your team. Serving on a research team has shown to dramatically increase educator engagement in research use. Just like our kids – we learn best by doing.

Action research is a great place to start. Most graduate programs in education include some training in action research – but we generally fail to make the leap from graduate theory into real-world application. Action research is an amazing continuous improvement construct that can help you team study your locally grown innovations and truly understand what is working for your kids.

If you aren’t sure about leading an action research cycle on your own, consider entering into a research practice partnership. A research practice partnership is when a school engages in a long term, mutually beneficial collaboration with a research organization. Together, the school and research organization work to study a problem of practice, evaluate an intervention, or identify local needs.

Finally, exploratory data analysis is another great tool for engaging in a research-lite activity. Exploratory data analysis is an open ended and iterative process in which your team reviews large sets of student data without judgement to better understand what’s going on with your students. I have written about the use of exploratory data analysis in school improvement in this blog post and in my book Exploratory Data Analysis in the Classroom.

System Element Four: Modeling Research Use

As a leader, we must never ask our team to do something that we ourselves would not do. Therefore, modeling research use is a vitally important element to creating a healthy system. Your team will not use research to inform decisions if they don’t see you doing it as well.

An easy way to model research use in your own work is by providing references lists along with your policy roll out. It shows that you at least looked for studies on the topic before making your decision. You can go a step deeper by annotating the references list to show how each study on the list influenced your decision.

Another great way to model research use is to cite the research as you discuss your policy or practice decision. Whatever you do – avoid saying “research says”. Be detailed! What research says it? Where did you find it? How did it influence your decision? Did anyone disagree with them? By showing that you can talk comfortably about the research you will be demonstrating to your team that you have truly walked the talk as you made the decision.

If you aren’t able to talk about research comfortably, consider drafting white papers that explain exactly how the research supports your decision. This is kind-of a blending of the last two options. You will talk about the individual pieces of research and synthesize them into a clear narrative that will help your team understand how you used research to inform your decision.

Finally, if you really want to model research use deeply, consider creating an official research position within your institution. By engaging directly in institutional research, you will provide a point of contact who can support your evidence-informed school improvement efforts. There are many models for institutional research offices in large urban school districts, institutes of higher education, and state education agencies. Consider replicating one of these offices within your system.

Wrapping Up

In order to make the transition to evidence-informed school improvement, you must build a sustainable system to support your efforts. By ensuring that your staff have the capacity to do the work, access to research, opportunities to participate in research, and occasions to see research use modeled, they will be better equipped to use research evidence to make better decisions and improve teaching and learning.

Good luck on your journey friends and let me know how I can help.