Fostering Research Use in School Districts Through External Partnerships

When and under what conditions can a district central office learn from external partners for their improvement efforts?

External partners, such as vendors, consultants, and researchers, can share materials and expertise to support instructional improvement efforts in districts. An increasing number of these external partners, whom district leaders reach out to all the time, draw on research in their work. Some actually conduct their own research on district programs as part of their assistance efforts.

But, too often, when the partners leave the district, so does the evidence of their efforts. In our recent study, we observed that some departments in a single district were more able than others to work with external partners in ways that fostered changes in their policies, routines, and collective knowledge. That is, some departments worked with partners in ways that enabled them to leverage research-based guidance and tools in their instructional decision making. We set about trying to learn what conditions—in the district, in the partner, and in the interaction between the two—enabled the district to learn while working with external research partners. While there are broader considerations and capacity issues, this post focuses on district capacity.

Research on absorptive capacity provides some useful ideas to help us think about this question. Scholars Cohen and Levinthal introduced the idea of absorptive capacity in 1990, describing it as an organization’s “ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends” (p. 128). Absorptive capacity is an organization’s ability to learn from external sources of knowledge in ways that influence their routines, practices, and policies. Research suggests organizations with high levels of absorptive capacity have a range of positive outcomes, including increased organizational performance, greater innovation, and greater flexibility to adapt to changing environments. While “absorptive capacity” is not the most precise term, as it portrays learning as a passive and unidirectional process, existing theory and research is useful because it can help us understand the kind of organizational conditions that enable a district to learn in active and bi-directional ways from an external partner.

Three Conditions that Can Foster Capacity

Existing research suggests that there are three organizational conditions that foster absorptive capacity: relevant prior knowledge, communication pathways, and strategic knowledge leadership.

First, relevant prior knowledge is the knowledge that district leaders already have about the issues on which they are working with the partner. It takes some degree of relevant prior knowledge to be able to recognize and make use of new research-based ideas or tools. But, this does not mean that everyone in a district needs to have all of the relevant knowledge. It could be, and most likely is, spread among different people within and across departments. Today, relevant prior knowledge depends upon the nature of the work that an external partner is brought in to do. For example, if an external partner is engaged to help the district scale research-based instructional strategies in mathematics, relevant prior knowledge may include an understanding of different instructional approaches in mathematics and knowledge of effective teacher professional development.

Second, absorptive capacity depends on the presence of communication pathways: the formal and informal ways that people within and between departments share, make meaning of, and use knowledge to problem solve. Central office staff will be more likely to learn from an external partner if there are ways to share these research-based ideas and engage in joint problem solving with one another. These could include official meetings, task forces, and working groups. These structures, along with informal relationships, help research-based ideas spread through relevant departments.

Finally, district leaders can play an important role in the degree to which engagement with external partners supports district learning through strategic knowledge leadership. In a district setting, strategic knowledge leadership could involve a leader’s overall willingness to engage with external partners (including researchers) and their vision for the role of the external partner in the district’s work. It could also involve a leader’s efforts to link research-based ideas from external partners to existing district efforts to support instruction.

What We Found

We analyzed two different departments that were both working separately with the same external research partner around mathematics. The external partner brought a host of research-based ideas and tools to its work with the two departments.

In one case, the department had limited relevant prior knowledge related to their work with the external partner. Although they were working together around issues of Common Core State Standards-Math, the department did not have a staff with any expertise related to mathematics teaching and learning. The leadership of this department did not see others in the district as having relevant expertise, either, thus creating limited communication between district departments. These conditions made it difficult for the department to learn from the external partners and integrate the ideas from research into their own work. Indeed, we saw limited evidence that the ideas of the partner moved into the department’s own policies around mathematics.

In comparison, a second department had a combination of strong content knowledge relevant for their work with their partner and strong informal relationships to other departments that enabled them to access additional knowledge. The department had strategic knowledge leadership that emphasized bringing diverse knowledge to the table, fostering efforts to reach out to others in the district. This leadership also set the expectation that the work with any partner would be in service of department goals and initiatives. These conditions likely supported productive partnering, where the partner’s research-based guidance moved into district policies and practices in significant ways. For example, we saw that the partner’s guidance about rich tasks in mathematics (with roots in research by mathematics educators) was central to the district’s new curricular materials for schools.

The concept of absorptive capacity brings into relief a district’s capacity to learn from external partners and leverage research-based guidance and tools in their improvement efforts. These ideas can serve as tools for understanding what it takes for a district central office to learn from an external partner for educational improvement efforts. For school district leaders and external partners, it provides a structure for thinking strategically about when and under what conditions a partnership is likely to be productive.