We recently observed and interviewed leaders in a major urban school district as they set out to revise their district’s school improvement policies. In pursuing their goals, the leaders we followed drew heavily from the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Drawn from a longitudinal research study of hundreds of schools, Organizing Schools for Improvement provides a framework for school improvement that points to five essential supports for reform.
The deputy superintendent and all assistant superintendents read the book, met several times to discuss it, and built the five essential supports into their school improvement planning documents. District leaders we spoke with reported that the book offered a “common set of vocabulary about the features of effective schools,” something that the central office had lacked before. The language of “five essential supports” and the “lessons from Chicago” seeped into multiple district discussions. Leaders used existing funding to invest in strategies to support these five essential supports, and district leaders attended to these supports when they visited schools and worked with principals and teachers.
This case is an example of what Carol Weiss called “conceptual” or “enlightenment” use of research. Rather than being consulted in the course of a specific decision, the research evidence in Organizing Schools for Improvement provided policymakers new ideas and frameworks that influenced how they individually and collectively approached their work. It shaped the beliefs and understanding that leaders drew on as they considered issues to address and evaluated potential solutions.
We often imagine that research use involves district leaders reviewing studies on the efficacy of different programs they are considering adopting, weighing pros and cons, and making a selection. But the conceptual use of research does not inform one specific decision directly. Instead, it influences what district leaders prioritize and focus on as they do their work. This, in turn, influences a variety of policy actions and problem solving decisions across the school system.
Still, policymakers and researchers often underestimate the conceptual role for research evidence. Because the process may be more indirect and diffuse than how we typically imagine the use of research evidence, it can be difficult to “see” the conceptual use of research in action. It doesn’t conform to typical expectations of linear decision making. It can take time for research ideas to infiltrate the policy environment and contribute to shifts in understanding. Policymakers may not be able to account for how their ideas have shifted or pinpoint which particular research findings have contributed to policies. Tracing it takes patience and a willingness to observe how ideas travel across different settings.
Yet, when we undervalue or ignore conceptual use, we do not get the full picture of when and how research shapes policy. Indeed, many studies have found that the conceptual use of research can be quite consequential for district policymaking.
The conceptual use of research is a potentially powerful way to inform policy. When used conceptually, research serves to introduce new ideas, help people identify problems and appropriate solutions in new ways, and provide new frameworks to guide thinking and action. What’s more, the conceptual use of research can have long-term consequences. Rather than influencing a single decision, it shapes how people see the world, how they respond to problems they encounter in their every day work, and how they design and manage solutions. It touches not only policymaking but also policy implementation. We agree with Carol Weiss, who argued “…this process—bringing new perspectives to attention and formulating issues for resolution—may be the most important contribution that social research makes to government policy.”