Improving the use of research in schools is important to ensure that school practices are as effective as possible in helping students succeed. Many factors contribute to the current situation in education, in which research use is a hit and miss affair. In some cases, the empirical evidence needed to inform practice simply does not exist or is not in a format that practitioners can find or apply. In other cases, however, credible bodies of evidence do exist but are not incorporated into the daily lives of educators and schools.
Improving the use of research in schools is important to ensure that school practices are as effective as possible in helping students succeed. Many factors contribute to the current situation in education, in which research use is a hit and miss affair. In some cases, the empirical evidence needed to inform practice simply does not exist or is not in a format that practitioners can find or apply. In other cases, however, credible bodies of evidence do exist but are not incorporated into the daily lives of educators and schools. This may be because the research is not known, or because the ideas are not seen as practical, or sometimes because they do not align with conventional professional wisdom or public belief.
Our interest is in efforts to integrate research evidence into practice. Research evidence means consistent findings deriving from widely accepted, systematic, and established formal processes of inquiry.
While many studies have addressed the efforts of researchers to make their work more accessible to practitioners, much less is known about how much research use is actually occurring in education. Few studies have tracked the extent and nature of research-related activities in school districts or the use of research by leaders or teachers in schools. This article provides some Canadian evidence on these questions.
For the last few years, the Canadian Education Association has been working with school districts across Canada on ways of improving secondary education. In connection with this project, our team studied the ways research is encountered and used by leaders in secondary schools in eleven school districts and about 100 secondary schools.
This article reports our findings, based on a survey of 188 superintendents, principals, and others with designated leadership roles in secondary schools across Canada that asked about the extent and nature of research use by educational leaders. In particular, we asked: What is the perception of research use in the district? In what ways do districts support the use of research (research-focused events; district practices; discussion in meetings; formalized research capacity; data use in school planning)? What is the extent of individuals’ research-related activities (time spent on research-related reading, events, and networks)?
Our interest is in efforts to integrate research evidence into practice. Research evidence means consistent findings deriving from widely accepted, systematic, and established formal processes of inquiry. We also investigated the use of local data in guiding policy and practice. We recognize the importance of other forms of knowledge, such as practitioner experience, but do not focus on them here. Similarly, the “use” of research can also take many forms, but here we focus on practices and systems in schools and districts for finding, sharing, and using external research evidence and internal data to make decisions about school policy and practice.
Perception of Research Use
Respondents were very positive about the extent to which research is used in their districts. More than 80 percent of respondents agreed (51 percent) or strongly agreed (34 percent) that “the important role of research was evident in the ways their district related research to practice.” Mean scores on items did not differ very much across the districts.
District Capacity and Supports Available
Institutional research infrastructure. Research capacity varies across districts. We asked districts if they had physical, informational, and human resources specifically allocated to support the use of research. Less than half (45 percent) of educational leaders surveyed reported that formalized roles and research departments existed within their districts, with 16 percent not knowing. In many cases (40 percent), those who said that their district had formalized research capacity weren’t sure how many people were involved. One exception was a school district that has made a consistent effort in supporting use of research: 94 percent of respondents from this district knew that the infrastructure existed, suggesting that efforts to give more profile to research do have an impact. Where research capacity does exist in districts, it is small (usually less than 5 people, with only a few districts having more than ten people working on research issues, even broadly defined).
Only 37 percent of respondents reported that research is posted on their district’s website, with a third of educational leaders being unsure of whether this is the case or not.
District support available for research related activities. We asked respondents about the frequency of various research-related practices in their districts. Two-thirds of respondents report that their district is involved in joint research projects with outside researchers. Educational leaders also reported district support for a variety of research related practices. (See Figure 1.)
There was little variation in these practices across districts. In some instances, however, leaders did not know if resources were available in their districts to support research activities.
Actual Research Use
Organizational research use. Research is discussed to very different extents across different types of meetings and events. However, overall it appears to play a modest to moderate role in informing various discussions. (See Figure 2.)
Participants reported that research was discussed the most frequently and consistently in professional development events, although other data in our study show that educators consider professional development a relatively less important source of information in influencing their knowledge about education issues than personal experience and colleagues or professional networks.
District Data Use. A growing dimension of evidence use in education involves the use of student achievement data of various kinds to guide policy and practice. The districts in this study reported regular use of a number of data sources for a variety of purposes, with a majority of respondents reporting consistent use of all the data sources mentioned in the survey. (See Figure 3.)
Most respondents reported using these data or other research for district and school improvement plans and annual reports (around 85 percent in each case). Still, even for these relatively obvious uses, some respondents either did not use the data in their districts, or did not know if the data and other research were used in different types of reports. Two other areas of data use were also surveyed: 66 percent reported using data and other research to report to parents and the community on system progress, but only 28 percent reported that outcome data were used as part of performance appraisal.
The idea that policy and practice should be grounded in the best available empirical evidence appears to have wide support.
Individual participation in research-related activities and events. We asked educational leaders about how much time they spend each month participating in three types of research-related activities: reading, events, and networks. Participation in research related events and activities is quite varied among respondents, though average levels are similar across districts. Overall, these leaders spend more time on research related readings than on research related events and networks. (See Figure 4.)
Most respondents attend one or two research related events a year including government-sponsored events, professional conferences, university-sponsored events, and academic research conferences. Nearly half of the respondents reported that all three categories, research-focused events (59 percent), research-related resources (48 percent) and other formal and informal networking opportunities (47 percent) were offered infrequently in their districts.
Relationships between attitudes, district capacity and actual research use. The very positive attitudes regarding the importance of research are not necessarily congruent with what respondents said about district capacity and actual research use. Some districts lack capacity whereas others, even with capacity, still report modest levels of use. While districts report many supports for research use, other data suggest that research use remains modest. Educators, then, might not be capitalizing on the available supports for research-related activities.
These data provide some useful indicators of the status of research use in Canadian school districts. If one considers the elements that might characterize an organization with a strong commitment to the use of research and evidence, the survey provides both positive and negative elements.
On the positive side, these respondents, from districts of various sizes in various parts of the country, report a strong interest in the use of research. The idea that policy and practice should be grounded in the best available empirical evidence appears to have wide support. Though this may seem a trivial finding, it was not so long ago that many education leaders would have dismissed education research as having little or nothing to contribute to practice. The change in attitude towards the importance of research is a vital element in improving knowledge mobilization in education systems.
Activity still depends heavily on a few interested people rather than being deeply embedded in daily practices.
The districts and their leaders are not just paying lip service to research use, either. The survey results show that these districts support research-related activities in a variety of ways, including not only professional development opportunities, but also the integration of research materials and findings into various district activities and processes. The literature on knowledge mobilization shows that the integration of research into various standard practices and social networks is fundamental to increased and lasting use of research. It seems reasonable to conclude that efforts to increase the role of research in the work of schools and districts have increased significantly over time.
It is particularly important to make use of research more regular and systematic rather than sporadic and based on individual initiative.
However, one could not reasonably conclude that the existing state of affairs is optimal. The practices around effective finding, sharing, and use of research have not yet caught up to the intentions or the widespread awareness that research is important. Levels of knowledge among these leaders about their own districts’ research-related activities were sometimes weak. Research discussions are still not a regular feature of events such as staff meetings or board meetings. And while districts have support for research-related activities available, a large proportion of respondents appear not to be very involved in such activities. Activity still depends heavily on a few interested people rather than being deeply embedded in daily practices.
Additional support for this interpretation comes from the way districts report using evidence on student achievement. This data is reported more often when required by government policy, suggesting that data use increases with formal requirements and policies.
Implications: Ways to Increase Research Use in School Districts
Our analysis, in combination with other studies, suggests ways in which the use of research could be further strengthened in schools and districts. It is particularly important to make such practices more regular and systematic rather than sporadic and based on individual initiative. The kinds of actions that might give greater weight and profile to research could include: the regular circulation of relevant research materials; discussion of research findings at staff meetings; the use of research in setting school and district plans; hiring of staff who have some research skills or background; and building on graduate work being done by staff members. Structures that already exist within schools, such as staff committees working on priority issues, could also serve as vehicles to discuss relevant research. Many of these changes in processes are small and could be done by most schools or districts without enormous effort.
Such practices are not difficult to put in place. For example, one can make discussions of research and evidence a standard part of the agenda of all major meetings in a school or district, especially by linking the discussion to ongoing issues of importance in the organization. So if a meeting of principals were to discuss, say, ways of improving parent engagement, then it would be automatic that some attention would be given to the current research on this issue and to data on current practices. Putting those systems in place raises the profile of research and creates the expectation among all parties that this kind of work is something to which they need to pay attention instead of being something to do when some time can be found.
Similarly, districts could reassess the kinds of supports they provide for research in terms of their effectiveness. Districts are using the most common practices such as supporting conference attendance or action research. However, these activities also rely substantially on interested parties and volunteers. From a system impact perspective, it seems likely that the same resources and effort could yield more impact if connected to ongoing investigation of a few key organizational issues. For example, districts might give more attention to study groups, working on priority items with external research experts. These investigations could, over time, build broad understanding across a district of the implications for practice of research in a few key areas, rather than dissipating many small scale efforts across many different issues as appears presently to be the case in most districts.
Another avenue to support increased knowledge mobilization in school districts is to provide support for network development and sustained collaboration across schools within a district or across districts. Networks are a potentially powerful mechanism for professional growth, behaviour change, and improved practice if they are carefully structured and focused. Building networks within and across educational organizations could provide shared systems for finding, sharing, and using research. Currently, schools and districts often operate in isolation, although educational professionals are frequently struggling with similar challenges, leading to inadequate use of evidence.
Implications for Further Research
This study investigates a field in which there has been little empirical work anywhere, and virtually none in Canada. Much more still needs to be learned about the ways in which educators, schools, and school systems find, share, and use research and other forms of evidence. In particular, we need more evidence on the practices being used to share research in schools and on the impact of those practices on what teachers and principals do, since it is already well known that knowledge of research findings does not necessarily lead to changes in practices. Accordingly, research attention should shift away from attitudes towards research, or even surveys of knowledge of research, to consider more fully the relation between knowledge and practice, and ways in which those connections could be strengthened.
The picture around research use in secondary schools is not nearly as bleak as some critics suggest. Our data show that Canadian school districts are interested in making use of research to shape their work, and they have taken a number of steps in that direction. At the same time, more could be done in this direction, and much of it would not require a great deal of effort. If we assume that research can help schools and teachers improve teaching and learning for themselves and their students, more progress is needed. Canadian schools are fortunate to have committed and competent educators working hard to improve the lives of their students, and with considerable openness to the potential contribution of research to that work. Our data suggest that school districts could focus more on this work and, in doing so, increase the impact of their efforts.
EN BREF – Il importe de mieux utiliser les preuves de recherche dans les écoles pour s’assurer que les pratiques scolaires soient aussi efficaces que possible afin d’aider les élèves à réussir. L’emploi actuel de la recherche se fait plutôt au petit bonheur. Parfois, les preuves empiriques nécessaires pour informer la pratique n’existent pas ou sont difficiles à trouver ou à appliquer. Ou encore, ces preuves existent, mais ne sont pas intégrées au quotidien des éducateurs et des écoles. D’après un sondage réalisé auprès de 188 dirigeants d’écoles secondaires au Canada et portant sur l’ampleur et la nature de leur utilisation de la recherche, la situation est loin d’être aussi mauvaise que le laissent entendre certains critiques. Les conseils scolaires canadiens tiennent à utiliser la recherche pour modeler leur travail et ont fait des pas dans cette voie. Toutefois, si nous croyons que la recherche peut aider les écoles et le personnel enseignant à améliorer l’enseignement et l’apprentissage pour les enseignants comme pour les élèves, il faut progresser encore.
 B. Biddle and L. Saha, The Untested Accusation: Principals, Research Knowledge, and Policy Making in Schools (Westport, CT: Ablex, 2002); A. Cooper, B. Levin, and C. Campbell, “The Growing (But Still Limited) Importance of Evidence in Education Policy and Practice,” Journal of Educational Change 10, no. 2-3 (2009): 159-171: B. Levin, “Making Research Matter More,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 12, no. 56 (2004). Retrieved November 15, 2008 from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v12n56/
 e.g. E. Holdaway, “Making Research Matter,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research 32, no. 3 (1986): 249-264; J. Gaskell, “Policy Research and Politics,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research 34, no. 4 (1988): 403-417.