I want to talk about a problem that has plagued the education profession for generations – a trend that I like to call “Over-the-Fence Decision-Making” (shoo that’s a lot of hyphens).
Let’s start with a story. Assistant Principal Martin has just been named the new Principal at George Washington Middle School on the other side of the school district. She is excited for this new opportunity and can’t wait to meet her new kiddos. George Washington Middle School, or WashMid as the locals call it, is generally considered to be a good school. They aren’t the highest performing school in the region academically, but their proficiency rates are good, they have lots of extracurricular activities, and outstanding parent and community engagement. Shortly after arriving at WashMid, newly appointed Principal Martin is faced with a predicament – the newest TikTok challenge has swept through the student body leading to constant interruptions and long lasting distractions from learning. What is a new principal to do?!?
Having never been a middle school principal before, Principal Martin begins to search for help. She calls on her principal friends and mentors to ask their advice. She asks the district behavioral interventionist to review the school’s behavior policies. She attends a training hosted by a regional educational organization. In the end, she is still stuck; having received too much conflicting and out-of-context advice. One day while checking her Twitter feed she sees a blog post written by another principal discussing how they addressed this internet challenge in their school. Principal Martin, desperate for a solution, reads the post and implements the solution in her school without a second thought.
This is an example of what I call Over-the-Fence Decision-Making. Principal Martin looked over the proverbial fence and asked herself “hey, what are they doing over there?”. Having been inspired by what she has seen, she implemented a similar intervention in her own school. Will her new intervention be successful? Only time will tell, but it is unlikely that her decision making method has given her the deep understanding she will need to fully implement the intervention with fidelity.
It isn’t Principal Martin’s fault. The education profession is a beg, borrow, and steal profession. We are trained from our earliest days to observe other classrooms, replicate lessons that we liked, and share our interesting tricks with our peers. At the classroom level, this has served us very well. It nurtures teamwork and collaboration, builds practices that are steeped in local context, and supports student learning by creating vertical and horizontal alignment across the school. At the leadership level, however, Over-the-Fence Decision-Making is a haphazard way of driving system level change.
Let’s dissect Principal Martin’s decision a bit further. First, she sought a solution to her problem by searching anywhere and everywhere. This led to increased frustration as she received conflicting advice rooted in personal opinions and experiences. When she found the blog post, she was inspired by the success it described. That inspiration is good, but inspiration is the point of a good blog post. The fact that Principal Martin implemented this intervention after reading the post speaks more highly of the author’s ability to convey their ideas than it does of the impact of the intervention itself.
Principal Martin only knows what the author told her about their experience with the intervention. She doesn’t have the full picture. She doesn’t know the other strategies that the school had in place to support the intervention. She doesn’t know what kind of training the teachers had before, during, and after intervention implementation. She doesn’t know how the new intervention will interact with other established strategies happening in her own school. This mountain of unknowns is likely to lead to less than stellar results in her own school.
Ms. Martin worked with the tools she had to solve an urgent problem. In this post, let’s introduce a new tool; research-driven decision-making.
Research-driven decision-making is a thoughtful and methodical approach to solving problems in a school. There are thousands of schools around the globe with hundreds of years of documented history. While TikTok may be a new phenomenon, maintaining classroom order certainly isn’t. Ms. Martin is certainly not the first principal struggling to deal with a school-wide behavior disruption and she won’t be the last. The research literature is brimming with potential solutions, one only has to seek them out.
While research-driven decision-making may take a little more time and effort, there are many benefits of adopting this approach. Here are five:
1. Research on educational problems of practice is widely available. Fleets of researchers across the globe are frantically working every day to document educational phenomenon and measure the results of potential interventions. This comes from a research culture often referred to as “publish or perish”. While I personally think that mantra is harmful to research professionals, it is extremely helpful to practitioners because it means that we have lots of stuff to look at.
2. Access to research is often free. While many academic journals are still clinging to outdated revenue models and place their articles behind pay walls, the growing Open Access movement means that education practitioners have ready access to a wide variety of research literature. The Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) is a free database maintained by the US Department of Education. One of their newer rules is that all federally funded research must be made freely available for download on the ERIC platform. Educators also frequently have higher degrees and many colleges and universities offer free library services to their alumni.
3. Research-based decision-making is timely because you can do it yourself. You don’t have to wait for the next conference to roll around or for next month’s Principal’s meeting to raise a concern. With a few strokes of the keyboard you can quickly access the information that you need exactly when you need it.
4. Practitioners can access multiple viewpoints on an issue. We tend to flock with people who think and act like us. While that helps us socially, it isn’t great for problem solving. We need people who push our boundaries and make us think outside the box. In order to make effective decisions, we have to consider all the viewpoints on an issue. Well-constructed research papers include thorough literature reviews that allow the reader to see the full scope and history of an argument. When you read multiple papers on a topic, you will gain a deeper understanding of the arguments for and against possible solutions.
5. Research reports include a full record of the scope of a possible intervention. You will never really know what happened at another school unless you are somehow involved in all of their team meetings. Your replication of their activities is only your best approximation of what you think they did. Research reports document every aspect of the intervention and control for things that are beyond the scope of the study. For example, if two teachers are implementing an intervention and one of them has fifteen years of experience and the other has three years of experience, this factor may change the outcome of the study. The researcher will tell you that and explain how they controlled for that difference. This level of detail can better prepare you when you seek to implement the intervention in your own school.
I know that research use isn’t in everybody’s comfort zone. I get it. It used to be out of my comfort zone too. But I posit that effective education leaders MUST learn to trust in the data and research available to them if they want to continue to promote growth into the future. To those of you who feel intimidated by research-use, I would challenge you to channel your students and embrace the productive disequilibrium. Learning new things is hard, but fun. Isn’t that why we all got into education in the first place? Here is a short list (because Google likes lists) of things you can do to start learning how to use research to drive decision-making.
1. Take a class. Most of us only had one or two research classes in our formal education training. Consider auditing a class at your local university or community college about research design or methodology.
2. Get your hands dirty. Open the ERIC database and dive in. Pull articles that seem relevant to you and read them and write down your thoughts. Research can often feel like a foreign language. It takes practice to read it and understand it. It will be slow at first, but it gets faster.
3. Incorporate research study into your regular workday. I have worked with many schools who have built research use into their PLC cycles. I wrote some thoughts about that process here.
4. Subscribe to open access journals that focus on a topic that is interesting to you. Simply do a search for “Open Access Journals about <insert topic here>”. You can subscribe for free and you will get an email whenever a new issue comes out. Read the issue and take notes. Practice makes perfect after all!
5. Establish a team in your school that focuses on research use and application. I have written about that method already too. Build a good research team and let them do the heavy lifting. They can then report back at faculty or leadership meetings and help promote research use across the whole school.
6. Practice action research. Action research is a continuous improvement construct in which practitioners deploy research methodologies to better understand a problem of practice. Its success in promoting research use is well documented. I’ve provided a quick overview of the action research process here.
Whatever steps you take, the most important step in transitioning from Over-the-Fence Decision-Making to Research-Based Decision-Making (there’s those hyphens again) is to get started! One simple way to get started is to visit The Repository. This is a free warehouse of tools, videos, and resources that I maintain to support leaders like you who want to build their research and data use capacity. I hope that you will find those tools helpful. You can also follow me on Twitter where I post a daily research article about whatever topics I happen to be working on in my own daily study. I think it is important that we are transparent about the work we are doing if we want to bring people along.
This post has become rather long winded, so this feels like a good place to wrap it up. I hope this post has inspired you to consider adopting a research-driven approach to decision-making. Good luck on your journey friends, and let me know if I can help.