Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill
reviewed by Claudia L. Edwards - October 22, 2015
Title: Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill
Author(s): Kara S. Finnigan, Alan J. Daly (Eds.)
Publisher: Springer Publishing, New York
ISBN: 3319046896, Pages: 194, Year: 2014
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In their publication, Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill, Finnigan and Daly feature a new generation of scholars who are examining how research is defined and used to inform policy and practice in the United States education systems. They offer cutting-edge studies that examine research evidence and how that evidence is defined and used by education administrators, policy makers, and other stakeholders at the local, state, and federal levels. As policymakers call for evidence-based accountability measures for assessing school performance, educators are under increased demands for collecting and using data to inform practice. Findings from these studies reveal the rich diversity in the types of research that go beyond scientific methods and offer context for the many challenges educators face in using research to improve practice.
Part One of this volume highlights the types of research being used by leaders in local communities and the challenges administrators face in using research to improve school performance. For example, through a series of social networking theories, Finnigan, Moorleannar, and Che examine the social networking taking place among district office administrators and building leaders, and how research is disseminated through those social networking systems. Overall findings from the quantitative study suggest that administrators are not playing a significant role in facilitating the process. Findings also reveal that school principals leading low-performing schools are less likely to benefit from research resources needed to improve school performance, and they are the least likely to ask or be asked for advice on issues regarding the use of the data.
The study by Honig, Venkateswaran, McNeil, and Myers Twitchell examines the challenges administrators face in a changing school culture. Their research builds upon the literature regarding the reforms taking place in central offices in local school districts (Hightower, 2002; Honig, Copland, Rainey, Lorton, & Newton, 2010). Honig, et al. examine six school districts where the central office was undergoing the process of reform. They draw upon Argyris and Schons (1996) single- and double-loop theory and other organizational learning and sociocultural theories to gain insight into how administrators and practitioners can move beyond the status quo and engage in true reform. At the core of these social learning theories is the premise that the individual must achieve a higher level of in-depth learning in order to make fundamental shifts in behavior. This shift occurs only when the individual can grasp new concepts and find meaningful ways to apply them to his or her current practice. Overall findings suggest that only single-loop learning was achieved by respondents. Findings from this research are consistent with Kotters theory for organizational change (Kotter, 2008, 2012), which is a theory we use with our doctoral candidates. Kotter discusses eight essential elements vital to organizational change. The most difficult element for sustainable change is creating a sense of urgency. Kotter points out the power of unhinging complacency among staff, who while actively participating in education reform efforts, never really accomplish the growth and development necessary for sustainable change. It is helpful to see single- and double-loop theory at play in findings from this study.
Scott, Lubienski, DeBray, and Jabbar examine the emerging role of intermediary organizations (IOs) and how those organizations research is used to shape education reform policy. These researchers draw from emergent theoretical and conceptual frameworks to explain how policy ideas and information travel through networks of IOs and how they move between local, state, and federal policymaking arenas. Scott, et al. conducted a mixed methods study in four cities where incentivized reform efforts were taking place. The overall findings suggest that IOs have a significant impact on education reform, and they use their own research to validate or invalidate such incentive reform. In spite of the fact that there is no clear-cut evidence as to the effectiveness of incentivized reform, IOs are advancing their education reform efforts, impacting policy, and using social media to build public and political support for their agendas. It also reveals how university-based research is untimely, expensive, difficult to access, and narrow in scope. The findings offer insight into the political landscape within which incentivized education reform is taking place and how there is an absence of objective research and data to examine its effectiveness.
In Part Two, Finnigan and Daley introduce three studies where the findings illustrate how federal and state government is using research to influence education policy. These three studies offer useful illustrations of what can be done when there is the presence of resources, collective passion, and political will to create and use research for decision making. For example, Barnes, Goertz, and Massell examine the changing role of state education agencies (SEAs) driven by Title I School Improvement grants, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the Race to the Top initiative, and other accountability programs, which are mandating greater responsibility on the part of SEAs for guiding the improvement of low-performing public school districts.
In response to the limited research on SEAs, Barnes, et al. conducted a mixed method case study on three SEAs in different regions of the country. They examined the extent to which staff members use research and practitioner knowledge to design and implement school improvement policies and practices for low-performing school districts. Barnes, et al. used organizations, social networks, and knowledge utilization research and theories (Frank, Zhao, & Borman, 2004; Lusi, 1997) to interpret how individuals have the capacity to facilitate or impede the use of new knowledge. Findings suggest a healthy flow of information was taking place among staff within and across SEA departments. The findings also show how federal and state incentives play an important role in SEAs reaching beyond their borders for new knowledge networks.
McDonnell and Weatherfords research offers a unique opportunity to trace the use of research during the developmental stage of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) policy. Their study explores the extent to which a broad range of methods was employed to assess the performance of the new policy. The findings offer insight into the variety of research used to examine policy as well as the complex network of collaborators involved in the national effort.
Haskins and Margolis analyze the process the Obama Administration used to shift federal policy for funding new and existing social intervention programs from a formula-based to an evidence-based model. In 2009, White House officials, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and several executive agencies worked in collaboration to develop and launch the five billion dollar Obama initiative to process six organizations seeking federal funding under its new evidenced-based guidelines. To understand the legislative pathway and administrative processes used to implement the Obama initiative, the qualitative study focused on Innovation i3one of the six initiatives under consideration. The findings offer keen insight into how stakeholders worked through a variety of challenges around conforming to the new accountability and evidence-based environment. Included in their rich analysis are healthy discussions on the political will necessary for birthing and sustaining an initiative, what and how research is defined, when to use research in decision making, when to compromise, and bridging the gap between research and practice.
Part Three offers a synthesis of the publication. Tseng and Nutley provide an overview of the important elements in each of the studies outlined in the book and how to better link research to practice. These authors emphasize the importance of having a strong infrastructure for facilitating a supportive environment where the creators and users of research can be developed and sustained over time. Finnigan and Daley end with their final thoughts on common themes that emerge from the studies examined in this book. They discuss the limited access to evidence, strategic uses of research, using evidence as a learning tool, building trust among stakeholders, the importance of research mediators and policy coalitions, and recognizing the institution of education as an interconnected system.
Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill is an excellent resource for understanding the complexities involved in responding to public policy demands for greater accountability in assessing school performance. The findings from this body of work that examines the use of research at the local level are very consistent with the challenges faced by doctoral students in our program. While our school administrators express an interest in using data and research in decision making, many of them appear overwhelmed by the research and the lack of a supportive infrastructure within which to examine data that oftentimes focus on what is wrong with their schools (Holcomb, 2004). While it is important and valuable to use research and data to identify problems, many of our administrators work in political environments where research and data are used in punitive ways. The studies showing how research is used by policy makers at the state and federal levels were excellent. They offer keen insight into the complexities of decision-making and the potential for what can occur when there is the presence of political will, technical savvy, and an infrastructure for developing and sustaining a rich environment for the creators and users of the research.
The only additional comment I would offer is the lack of research that examines how to include the public in this rich conversation about defining and using evidenced-based research for measuring school performance. Much research is appropriately invested in increasing the capacity of education professionals (Darling-Hammond, Chung Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009). While public schools belong to the public (Broun, Puriefoy, & Richard, 2006; Mathews, 2001, 2006; Puriefoy, 2005; Stone, 2004, 2005), the public voice is rarely included in policy discussions that impact public schools. In my book (Edwards, 2011), I report findings from a study I conducted in the City of Mount Vernon, NY. Similar to that of many U.S. urban school districts, the annual voter participation rate in Mount Vernon school board elections was lowaround 5 to 7% of the 30,000 citizens registered to vote. Parent participation was significantly low and the public displayed open hostility toward the school administrators and elected officials. I was interested in knowing why the public was so disenfranchised. Findings revealed that nearly 80% of respondents had no faith in the decision making process. Although frustrated with their school and elected officials, only 18% of the public understood that they owned public schools or believed they had a legitimate right to participate in the debate on education policy. Those who knew they were legitimate owners of the public schools did not believe their voice made a difference. While almost all respondents expressed an interest in actively supporting their local school district, we found a public that was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to play any meaningful role in shaping public policy or assessing the quality of education being offered to children within the school district.
While we continue to invest in increasing the capacity of professional stakeholders who are directly involved in education, there is a need for research on how to equip the public so that parents and the at-large community have the knowledge they need to participate in this new era where policy dictates the use of evidence-based accountability measures for assessing school performance. All in all, congratulations to Finnigan and Daly for a job well done.
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