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Collaboration: Implementing Research Depends on Strong Networks

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

We have access to a lot of good sound research and information in today’s information age. Education practitioners, those working in schools and districts, are ultimately responsible for overseeing system-wide changes, but they rarely have time to sift through data and evidence to identify sound research that might offer guidance for their respective district or school. Therefore, those higher up in district administration are more likely to be the ones assessing available research and working to support struggling schools. Taking action on sound research requires strong networks and strong communication among system professionals to move the evidence and information down to the school level. Ultimately, even if the research is good, it does not guarantee change. The system must be prepared to implement the necessary steps to produce changes in student performance. In fact, research suggests that an emphasis on the technical aspects of improvements leads us to overlook the relational component to system-wide change.

The research presented at an American Youth Policy Forum event “Districts’ Use of Research to Support Struggling Schools,” on Capitol Hill this week highlights the importance of understanding the process necessary to take good research and put it into practice on the ground. Researchers, Alan J. Daly, University of California, San Diego and Kara S. Finnigan, University of Rochester discussed how educators define, use and engage with research, as well as how social networks contribute to the dissemination of research. Their work suggests that these connections and robust district collaboration are critical in forming strong social networks, and ultimately implementing action strategies based on research to support struggling schools. Additionally, policies that focus on consequences frequently heighten the distrust between school leaders and classroom practitioners, which fractures relationships and fragments channels for research dissemination.

Daly and Finnigan’s district level research on social networks revealed  that school leaders in low-performing schools tend to be more isolated within the system, both when it comes to sharing evidence and also with  ties – emotional or effective – to their colleagues and superiors. Therefore, Daly and Finnigan also found that ‘new’ ideas and practices are least likely to reach the lowest-performing schools. This isolation and lack of communication contributes to the breakdown in implementing supportive strategies for struggling districts. Also, there is an emotional bifurcation of the system, with principals communicating primarily with other principals and central office administrators interacting primarily with other administrators. There was little exchange across various levels of administration.

The significance of these findings is three-fold. First, building relationships and creating capacity are critical to implementing changes that are supported by research. Second, struggling schools – often suffering from high turnover rates among principals and teachers – are facing an uphill battle with institutional memory and consistency when it comes to implementing system-wide changes. Finally, collaboration is the foundational aspect of any attempt at wide-scale reform. Data on its own may be instructive, but success is solely dependent in the quality of implementation which is highest when everyone is part of the effort. Turning around a struggling district often requires more than just a program. Research suggests that you need a good curriculum accompanied by good assessments, professional development for staff, strong leadership and a commitment to engaging parents and the broader community.

Change requires a team-supported approach to improvement and a strategic application of resources. Districts that receive additional resources to turn around struggling schools may do well to examine their staffing dynamics and structure, overall capacity, and professional development opportunities as part of their strategic action plans. Long-term sustainable change requires transparent governance, collaboration among all levels of administration and a commitment to rigorous curriculum and assessments that address academics, social and emotional learning and twenty-first century skills.


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