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Evidence, Interpretation, and Persuasion: Instructional Decision Making at the District Central Office


by Cynthia E. Coburn, Judith Toure & Mika Yamashita — 2009

Background/Context: Calls for evidence-based decision making have become increasingly prominent on the educational landscape. School district central offices increasingly experience these demands. Yet there are few empirical studies of evidence use at the district level. Furthermore, research on evidence use among policy makers in noneducation settings raises questions about the models of decision making promoted by evidence-use policies, suggesting that they do not take into account key features of the interpretive process or the organizational conditions that shape how decision making unfolds.

Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study: The central premise of this article is that only by understanding the patterns by which personnel in school district central offices actually use information, and the factors that affect this use, can we begin to understand the promise and possibilities of evidence use. We ask: What is the role of evidence in instructional decision making at the central office level? What factors shape how decision processes unfold?

Research Design: We draw on data from a longitudinal case study of one midsize urban district, which we followed from 2002 to 2005. We relied on in-depth interviewing, sustained observation, and document analysis. We identified 23 decisions related to instruction that were captured in our data over the 3 years and for which we had at least three independent sources of information. We analyzed each decision using a coding scheme that was developed from prior research and theory and elaborated through iterative coding. We then used matrices to compare across decisions and to surface and investigate emerging patterns.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We argue that decision making in complex organizations like school districts is centrally about interpretation, argumentation, and persuasion. These processes are shaped in crucial ways by preexisting working knowledge and practices that guide how people come to understand the nature of problems and possible avenues for solutions. They are also influenced by organizational and political factors, including the organizational structure of the central office, resource constraints, and leadership turnover. We close by suggesting implications for efforts to foster substantive and productive use of evidence at the central office level.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 1115-1161
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15232, Date Accessed: 12/16/2017 11:55:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Cynthia E. Coburn
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    CYNTHIA E. COBURN is assistant professor in policy, organization, measurement, and evaluation at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the relationship between instructional policy and teachers’ classroom practices in urban schools, with particular attention to the role of evidence in policy making and policy implementation. Recent publications appear in American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Sociology of Education.
  • Judith Toure
    Carlow University
    E-mail Author
    JUDITH TOURÉ is a PhD candidate in administrative and policy studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She recently accepted a faculty position in teacher education at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. Her scholarly work focuses on the role of school leadership in teacher and student learning, particularly in cross-cultural settings.
  • Mika Yamashita
    University of Pittsburgh
    MIKA YAMASHITA is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Education. Her current research interests include policy implementation, the accountability movement, and teachers’ instructional change. Her dissertation examines the impact of high-stakes testing policy on middle school teachers’ classroom instruction.
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