Leadership Matters

This post is part of our eight-part blog series on using research evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Check back every week for the latest installment. Also, be sure to sign up for our March 7 webinar, ESSA and Research Evidence: Opportunities and Challenges for States.

Betsy Brand, Executive Director

I have been thinking a lot about leadership over the past several months, given the huge changes coming to Washington, DC and the country as a new Administration enters office. While I could easily write this blog about the type of political leadership we are seeing, I’ll restrain myself and keep to the topic at hand, which is about the role of leadership in promoting the use of research evidence as states and districts implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA gives states and school districts much more control over the design and implementation of Title I and other federal education programs. ESSA also includes a number of mandates about using evidence-based interventions when developing comprehensive and targeted reform plans for low-performing schools as well as requiring the use of evidence in certain other allowable activities, some competitive grants, and the education innovation and research program.

Having provisions in law is one thing; acting on them is another. While most of us probably would agree that using data, evaluation, and research to inform our decision making and programming is a good thing, it’s a lot harder to make it happen. How often do research and data sit on the shelf unconsidered when making important programmatic or pedagogical decisions?  We all know that happens much too frequently. A strong leader (or a team of leaders) at the state, district, or school level can ensure that evidence and date are used to inform important education decisions.

First, it’s important for leaders to create a culture that promotes the use of evidence across the board. Education leaders have to model the behavior they want to see by asking for data and evidence about all aspects of their work, studying it, discussing it with colleagues to understand how it relates to current context, and then using the evidence to inform their decisions, rather than relying on personal preferences or political considerations. Some leaders encourage “book clubs,” where they bring their senior team together to read research reports and discuss the implications for their schools and students. Others promote transparency with the public and widely share the evidence and data upon which their decisions are based.

Evidence and data may not always result in good news or positive findings – think high dropout rates or large achievement gaps. Leaders need to be courageous to accept the facts and address them squarely and honestly, without covering them up. Getting the true picture about poor student performance or learning about what hasn’t worked gives leaders the opportunity to move ahead with evidence-informed interventions to address the problems. But it takes a strong and confident leader to examine current data and research, knowing full well that the findings could be negative and, at worst, result in reduced budgets, lack of confidence in current leadership, or even job loss.

Leaders also need to help others incorporate research and evidence in their daily work. Their immediate team needs to adopt the same approach to using evidence, but front-line staff and teachers need to use evidence, too. State, district, and school leaders address this in various ways. Some provide trainings for staff to learn about current research, evaluations, and data; others create a research office to help lead efforts; and still others create a structure and expectation of using data to continuously improve efforts by giving staff time to review evidence and discuss it with peers.

Probably doing all of these would work best, but not all school districts and schools can afford to create a research office or hire a research expert. If that is the case, school districts and schools can create partnerships with researchers at universities or intermediaries, or even use Ph.D. candidates, to collect and analyze data. Leaders need to use care in selecting their partner to ensure that the partner can provide data in a timely manner (not, say, five years in the future), has a good understanding of the internal dynamics, politics, and context of the state, district, or school, and is realistic about what can reasonably be accomplished.

Leaders also need to engage with others in a collaborative manner, as opposed to telling districts or schools how to use evidence. Leaders need to ensure that there is a participatory process with all stakeholders when deciding on research-based interventions, as opposed to making a decision to use one approach from on high.

Lastly, there are times when research and data reports are not available to inform decision-making. In that case, leaders need to build the capacity of their organization to provide just-in-time analyses based on the best information available. Then, once data and evidence are available, the district or school can change or adjust the intervention based on the most recent findings.

As in all enterprises, the leader establishes the culture and sets priorities. ESSA’s requirements to use evidence demand that education leaders “walk the walk,” lead by example, and commit to collecting and using research data as an integral part of the new law’s interpretation.

Betsy Brand is Executive Director of the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.