Research to Practice

A new study reveals that education leaders use research. Now — how to maximize its potential?

By Leah Shafer, on June 9, 2016 3:03 PM
Research to Practice: A new study reveals that education leaders use research. Now — how to maximize its potential?  #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

Good news for education researchers: Your work is influencing district and school leaders, helping to guide their decisions.

Countering criticism that education research is often irrelevant to practice, a newly released national survey has found that the majority of education leaders value research and use it regularly.

It’s a moment for education scholars and research institutions to relish — and then ask, “So what’s next?” Can these findings trigger a wider push for evidence-based solutions? With increased collaboration between researchers and practitioners, can education research — like research in medicine or case studies in business — shape the way school leaders approach emerging needs or the toughest problems of their daily practice?

The Research

The survey was produced by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP), a collaboration among the University of Colorado Boulder, the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research, and the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. It gathered information from 733 education leaders in 485 school districts across 45 states. The respondents were superintendents, principals, curriculum supervisors, and directors of federal programs, in mid- to large-size urban U.S. districts.

The survey was careful to define research as “an activity in which people employ systematic, empirical methods to answer a specific question” — not just the practice of examining data from a specific district, school, or classroom.

Following that definition, the survey asked about the ways in which participants had used research in their work, about individual pieces of research they had used, and about the culture of research use in their department.

The results?

  • Almost all education leaders are using research to inform their decisions. Nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated that they use research “frequently” or “all of the time” to support the choices they make in their work.
  • Fewer educators are using research more broadly to develop their perspectives. While 72 percent of respondents said they use research to expand their understanding of issues, most of those only did so only “frequently” or “sometimes,” not “all of the time.”
  • Responses indicated that research was most likely to come up in conversations about instruction and curricula and least likely to come up in discussions of parents or community issues.
  • Only a little more than half — 59 percent — of respondents could name a specific piece of research or study that had been useful to their work.
  • While nearly all respondents agreed that researchers provide valuable service to educators, attitudes were more mixed on the credibility of research, with over a third indicating that researchers could be biased, framing their results to make a certain point.
  • Very few respondents said that they ever contact researchers directly.

Connecting Scholarship to Schools — and Schools to Scholarship

Many observers have lamented that education research has been ineffective at creating change; after all, the achievement gap persists after decades of studies on how to ameliorate it. So it’s helpful to hear that research is, in fact, making its way into the classroom.

And, significantly, the study suggests why gaps between research and practice still remain. The findings suggest that, although educators use research, they may feel somewhat disconnected from it. Educators are unlikely to reach out directly to scholars, to review research to broaden their perspectives on topics or new problems they know little about, or to perceive researchers as totally objective. And the fact that only a little more than half can name a specific piece of research suggests that many studies may not seem related to their work in particular.

For education research to make a wider impact on schools and students, researchers and practitioners will have to communicate and collaborate, with practice leaders helping to drive the agenda. As economist and Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) professor Thomas Kane noted in a recent Education Next article, “Researchers, rather than policymakers and practitioners, are posing the questions, which are typically driven by debates within the academic disciplines rather than the considerations of educators.”

To make research more directly applicable to the challenges that superintendents and principals face, researchers should turn to schools first. “Scholars can take several steps to connect their work to practice,” says survey co-author Heather C. Hill, of HGSE, “including seeking out practitioners to help shape their research questions and discussing research results with both practitioners and intermediary organizations, such as professional associations.” With this type of increased collaboration, educators can feel confident that researchers are working to solve their most challenging problems — and scholars can continue to ensure that their work will be welcomed by educators.

Additional Resources

  • Read more about new ways of measuring how educators use research ideas in practice, based on work by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice.
  • Learn about Proving Ground, a new project at the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research designed to connect evidence-gathering and analysis of data in schools to practice.
  • Learn more about Harvard's role in the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice.

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Faculty in this article

Thomas Kane

Professor Thomas Kane's work has spanned both K-12 and higher education, covering topics such as the design of school accountability systems, teacher recruitment and retention, financial aid for college, race-conscious college admissions and the earnings impacts of community colleges.


Heather C. Hill

Heather C. Hill's primary work focuses on teacher and teaching quality and the effects of policies aimed at improving both. She is known for developing instruments for measuring teachers’ mathematical knowledge for teaching (MKT) and the mathematical quality of instruction (MQI) within classrooms.