Northwestern partners with other universities to create new educational research center

Olivia Exstrum, Assistant Summer Editor

Northwestern is one of three universities that received a nearly $5 million collective grant to create a new national center focused on examining how leaders in education use research to make their decisions.

The School of Education and Social Policy at NU, along with Harvard University and the University of Colorado Boulder, will be collaborating on the project.

The Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education announced the grant last week. The team applied for the grant after IES announced they were looking to create an educational research center. The team sent in a grant proposal and was informed about their success about six weeks ago, said Derek Briggs, co-principal investigator and professor at CU-Boulder.

“We know that in education research there are hundreds, thousands of studies available to districts and to schools,” said Caitlin Farrell, director of the new National Center for Research in Policy and Practice and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley. “But providing access to research like that doesn’t necessarily mean school leaders take that research into their decision making.”

Farrell said the center will be focused on understanding how this research influences educational leaders, including school officials, district supervisors and principals.

“We want to know how they make decisions that impact schools, districts and kids,” she said. “Hopefully, we will have a much greater understanding on how district leaders use research in their day to day, and then design more effective uses of research.”

The center will first be implementing three studies, said Cynthia Coburn, a visiting professor in SESP from UC Berkeley and a co-principal investigator in the center. As co-principal investigator, Coburn works with a team to implement the center’s studies. The first of these studies will be a measurement study and will aim to create new measures of survey and observation research in an effort to find better ways to quantify information. Coburn said Bill Penuel, lead investigator for the project and a professor at CU-Boulder, and Heather Hill, a co-principal investigator and professor at Harvard, will be collaborating for the first survey.

The second survey, led by co-principal investigator and SESP professor James Spillane, will be examining the factors that have influenced research use in educational settings over an 18-month period, Coburn said.

For the third survey, Coburn said she will be collaborating with Penuel to study efforts used by leaders to increase research in an educational setting.

“We’re studying particular strategies that have developed within the last 15 to 20 years,” she said. “Many of these strategies are partnerships between school districts and other external factors.”

Briggs said those involved in the project have previous experience in the field of education research, so it was natural for the three schools to collaborate. Currently, Briggs said the team is working on conceptualizing what the surveys should look like. He said the team will be meeting in Boston next week to discuss the surveys with others involved in the field of education research.

“We’ll be spending a lot of time developing the surveys and deciding what are the right questions to ask,” Briggs said. “You have to put a lot of thought into how you ask people about these things, so we’re spending quite a bit of time looking on in the early stages what that should look like.”

Farrell said as director of the new center, she will be assisting in coordination across different projects, as well as reaching out to district school leaders. She said the team plans to share their findings with different audiences, including “practitioners and research-oriented audiences.”

“Within our range of different studies, we will also be doing big messaging and sharing about what we’re finding,” she said.

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