Districts’ Use of Research to Support Struggling Schools

Districts’ Use of Research to Support Struggling Schools
Districts’ Use of Research to Support Struggling Schools


The demand for research-based practices in education and youth development has increased over time as access to rich and rigorous data has become available. The No Child Left Behind Act and other legislation have gone as far as to mandate the use of practices supported by research and billions of dollars are spent on research in the social sciences—yet much of this high-quality research has not made it into the hands of practitioners working to improve our nation’s schools. There is an emerging body of evidence arguing that simply conducting rigorous research is not nearly enough. Diverse education stakeholders define, access, interpret, and use research very differently. We must target research to the needs of specific stakeholders and encourage collaboration among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to ensure that research is able to inform policy and practice.

At this forum, presenters discussed how research has been used in schools and districts. Researchers Alan J. Daly, University of California, San Diego and Kara S. Finnigan, University of Rochester, discussed how educators define, use and diffuse research evidence and the importance of social networks in mediating and disseminating evidence. Superintendent Joshua Starr of Montgomery County Public Schools and Ron Rode, the Executive Director of Accountability in San Diego Unified School District, discussed how this research is being used to support policy and practice in their districts, as well as the larger policy context.

This forum is part of a series of events showcasing a body of work supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation that examines how research is being used in state and local education agencies and in the development of the Common Core State Standards.

Be sure to check out the recommended resources for this forum located at the bottom of this webpage.

Presenter Biographies

Alan J. Daly is associate professor of education at the University of California, San Diego. He graduated from Clark University with a BA in Psychology, received a MS in Counseling from San Diego State University, and a MA and Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in Educational Leadership and Organizations from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Over the last 15 years, Alan has held a wide variety of positions in public education ranging from classroom teacher to district psychologist to educational leader. In addition to his K-12 public education experience, Alan has also been the Program Director for the Center for Educational Leadership and Effective Schools at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he collaboratively supported the delivery of high quality services and research to school districts focusing on the rigorous examination of strengths, building leadership capacity, and facilitating the potential of systems for transformation. Alan has presented at the local, state, and national level around conflict mediation, the creation and maintenance of positive school cultures, and the impact of current accountability structures. As a licensed educational psychologist, he has also provided consultation to school districts working to build and sustain systemic leadership capacity, district reform, and implementation of adult and student conflict resolution. Alan’s research interests include the intersection of leadership and trust, district coherence, strengths based processes, and social network theory and analysis.

Kara Finnigan joined the Warner School in 2003. She teaches in the educational leadership program and is currently the director of the doctoral and master’s programs in educational policy. Her courses focus on educational policy and politics, sociology of education, and research methods.

Finnigan began her work in education as a substitute teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. She has conducted research and evaluations of K-12 educational policies and programs at the local, state, and federal levels for nearly 20 years through her work at several prominent national research organizations, including SRI International, RPP International, and the George Lucas Educational Foundation. She has written extensively on the topics of low-performing schools and high-stakes accountability, principal leadership, teacher motivation, and charter schools. Finnigan’s research blends perspectives in education, sociology, and political science; employs both qualitative and quantitative methods; and focuses on urban school districts. She has published articles in the American Educational Research Journal, Journal of Educational Change, Educational Policy, Educational Administration Quarterly, Journal of School Leadership, Leadership and Policy in Schools, Journal of School Choice, Urban Review, and Education Policy Analysis Archives.

Finnigan’s current research focuses on social network analysis in low-performing schools and districts; school improvement under sanction; inter-district choice; district-wide reform; accountability policies; school closure; and the role of districts and states in school improvement. She is currently an associate editor of the Social and Institutional Analysis section of the American Educational Research Journal.


Ron Rode currently serves as the Executive Director in the Office of Accountability for the San Diego Unified School District. San Diego Unified, with a total student population of about 130,000, is the second largest district in California. The district serves a diverse population of students from many racial/ethnic backgrounds, including one third who are English language learners.

The Office of Accountability has broad responsibility over many areas, including student academic assessments, data reporting and analysis, program evaluation and accountability, research, and state and federal monitoring and compliance.

Ron began his education career teaching high school computer science and applications courses as well as other business-related courses. He joined San Diego Unified in the early 1990s as an evaluation analyst and steadily moved into higher positions, all of which focused on program evaluation and research. Ron was a co-author on three district evaluation reports that were honored with awards from the American Education Research Association.


Dr. Starr began his tenure as Montgomery County Public Schools’ superintendent of schools on July 1, 2011, after having been the superintendent in Stamford, Connecticut.

Dr. Starr is a passionate champion for all students and is committed to ensuring that Montgomery County Public Schools meets the needs of students across the spectrum. This appointment builds upon the work Dr. Starr began as a teacher in 1993. Dr. Starr was the superintendent in Stamford from 2005 to 2011, where he distinguished himself by increasing student achievement for all subgroups, emphasizing increased academic rigor, standardizing curriculum, advancing the use of technology, creating business and civic partnerships, and emphasizing community and family engagement efforts aimed at supporting all children in the classroom.

Previously, he served at the executive level in the New York City Department of Education, the largest school system in the nation, where he held the position of Director of School Performance and Accountability. Dr. Starr’s first position with the New York City Department of Education was as Deputy Senior Instructional Manager.

Dr. Starr began his career as a special education teacher in the New York City Public Schools working with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents. He has also served in administrative roles in Plainfield, New Jersey and Freeport, New York. A self-professed life-long learner, Dr. Starr brings enormous energy, intellect and enthusiasm to his new post as superintendent of schools for Montgomery County Public Schools. Dr. Starr holds a doctorate degree in administration and social policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has published articles in many journals in the field of education.

Dr. Starr and his wife, Emma, have three children, who attend Montgomery County Public Schools.

Recommended Resources


Collaboration: Implementing Research Depends on Strong Networks – Learning First Reflects on AYPF Forum

Click here to see Alan Daly and Kara Finnigan’s Powerpoint Presentation»

Click here to see Ron Rode’s Powerpoint Presentation»

Click here to view and download the Forum Brief for this event (PDF)»

Presenter Information

Alan J. Daly PhD

Associate Professor

Department of Education Studies

University of California, San Diego

9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla, CA 92093


Kara S. Finnigan, PhD

Associate Professor and Director
Educational Policy Educational Leadership Warner School of Education

University of Rochester

252 Elmwood Ave, Rochester, NY 14611


Ron Rode

Executive Director

Office of Accountability San Diego Unified School District

4100 Normal Street, Room 3150

San Diego, CA 92103


Joshua P. Starr, PhD

Superintendent of Schools
Montgomery County Public Schools

850 Hungerford Drive,

Room 122

Rockville, Maryland 20850


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.