As the research coordinator for the West Ada School District in Idaho my main responsibility is to seek out information that answers the most pressing questions for the district.
Prior to this position I worked as a geologist for an engineering firm and most recently as a high school science teacher within the district. That background helps me anticipate questions that our district and community would want answers to and obtain them via our research – taking a science-based approach to teaching and learning. My role involves developing systems to measure progress and identify success in order to help West Ada hold ourselves accountable to the community for how we utilize our resources.
This “internal researcher” format is in contrast to the typical university research model where topics and methodologies are developed prior to engaging schools or districts, and conclusions are made in isolation from those same districts. Typically, academic research studies rarely address the questions most pressing to teachers and district leaders at the moment. In fact, district participation in academic research can create more work for many educators, potentially resulting in a loss of focus on the important tasks directly at hand.
However, if these research endeavors are closely aligned with district and school-level strategic plans, created in a collaborative manner with the stakeholders involved, and used ultimately to make decisions by those very same stakeholders, research can become a powerful tool for change.
As leaders try to keep up with the rapidly changing needs of today’s students and classrooms, research must be performed with district and school goals in mind. My job is to create an annual research agenda aligned with our district’s goals and coordinate both internal (within the district) along with external (collaboration with university and partners) research.
West Ada is underway on several district-wide initiatives focusing on personalized learning, online techbooks, blended and online classroom models, and bring your own device (BYOD) models. These innovative ideas typically start as small-scale endeavors led by teachers or schools and are brought “to scale” through an iterative process of analysis and subsequent modification.
When designing the study of these initiatives, we first build a knowledge base by reviewing past research and developing methodologies to address the question(s) at hand:
These are the questions that define shared goals for the overall project. With this approach, we can learn from our mistakes to avoid repeating them and incrementally build successful systems.
Our research group works hard to include stakeholders and decision makers, as well as those who will be key in implementing these projects once shown to be successful.
As we conduct our research, data collection involves team members actively participating in observations, interviews, surveys, and grade analyses. This knowledge building affects the entire system in positive ways—because these undertakings are always done as a collaborative and team-building endeavor. For example, when introducing a new classroom tool like online techbooks, teachers, school-administrators, district-level academic coaches and coordinators must all come together to build shared knowledge.
Because more nuanced information is typically gained “in the field,” team members routinely play a vital and active role collecting data in our schools and classrooms. This work also provides an opportunity to strengthen relationships and build a collaborative environment between district-level and school-level staff—an essential part of successful change.
Without this team-building and knowledge sharing mentality, projects tend to become disjointed, pocket-forming, and can even be detrimental to the focus within a school or district. At West Ada, we are fortunate to have a superintendent, Linda Clark, who sees the potential of this approach and has invested in it.
My hope is that, through the building of a research culture – continually performing action research to make decisions at all levels – we can develop programs proven to work for our students, parents, and teachers alike. This continual improvement process allows organizations to grow successfully (and continually), and engages those invested to make needed changes a reality.
With many of our own research projects, we use the information gleaned to make ongoing decisions and, more importantly, create shared knowledge among stakeholders.
After collecting the data, the team analyzes it with statistical methods and develops conclusions based on the results. The final dissemination of results is important because it transforms an esoteric research concept into a much more concrete framework or guideline that can now be used by others throughout the district. To help create this institutional memory for future decision making, we created an Academic Research Website where final write-ups are posted for the community to view.
The final and most important step of this process is to enact the changes suggested by the research—to turn theory into action. This inevitably leads to another set of questions which becomes part of the “continuous improvement cycle” of Plan-Do-Evaluate-Act.
Above all else, performing research within a district allows leaders to show their patrons (parents, teachers, and community members) that they are holding themselves accountable for the expenditure of resources toward increasing student achievement. Informing the larger community completes the scientific and data-based method of decision making as new endeavors are attempted, analyzed, and, if successful, expanded. Finally, the results of this process are communicated.
West Ada’s district research provides the knowledge base, the practical results, as well as the collaborative environment to ensure that needed large-scale changes will be adopted and utilized throughout the district successfully.
Dr. Eian Harm is the research coordinator and facilitator of innovative projects at West Ada School District in Meridian, Idaho.