Using Professional Development to Support EdTech Evidence Building in Schools

Office of Ed Tech
5 min readApr 11, 2023

This is the second blog in a series highlighting the Office of Educational Technology’s (OET) EdTech Evidence Toolkit resources. To learn more about how OET is supporting evidence-building practices for impactful EdTech adoption in schools, visit https://tech.ed.gov/evidence.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Educational leaders are charged with making edtech decisions on behalf of school districts and desire support in using evidence to inform these decisions. Integrating evidence-building into professional development activities initiated by state and local education agencies for school districts can serve as a critical step to developing school districts’ capacity for finding, building and using evidence to inform edtech adoption. We offer suggestions for how educational leaders can use professional development activities aimed at school districts to build capacity for evidence-building in schools.

Why Should Educational Leaders Care about EdTech Evidence Building?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) encourages state and local educational agencies to prioritize evidence-based practices. However, a research to practice gap exists between the education research community and educational leaders tasked with making edtech decisions on behalf of schools. This gap necessitates a need for accessible professional development resources specifically designed to support schools in evidence building activities. We outline below why educational leaders should provide professional development opportunities for school districts to support evidence-building capacity in schools:

  • Time and Relevance. Sometimes the timelines of academic research and government policy are longer than the immediacy of school districts’ needs. School districts need information now, not years from now. In academic research, the evidence produced can be useful for developing a broad understanding of effective education practices and interventions — which is important — but findings may not generalize to individual districts and schools. When school districts engage in evidence-building activities they cultivate an evidence-base supporting student outcomes in their specific school settings and also add to the broader evidence-base.
  • Equity and Self-advocacy. School districts need to have the evidence-base knowledge and tools about what works and what doesn’t work to make just-in-time decisions about educational practices and interventions in their schools. Just as schools seek to empower students to be scientists and explorers, educational leaders can empower districts and schools to expand current uses of evidence (i.e., teachers’ use of diagnostic data to inform individual student intervention) to amplify future evidence-building activities in support of effect school practices. For too long evidence has been seen as something only “experts” can collect, interpret, and use. When educational leaders support schools in adopting the mindset that the scientific method is a process all can engage in on a regular basis to inform decision-making, school districts can extend existing use of evidence to engage in evidence-building activities that support positive student outcomes. Including schools as participants in evidence-building is an equitable endeavor that supports self-advocacy and lessens the research to practice gap.
  • Democratizing science. Including school districts in evidence-building endeavors democratizes science. Perceptions of science and evidence-building have traditionally centered on the medical model of experimental research (i.e., the use of treatment and control groups to estimate a treatment effect) as the gold standard. Efforts to engage purely experimental approaches to education research, however, are sometimes difficult to implement for schools. These realities have in part encouraged alternative approaches to evidence-building incorporating qualitative, mixed, and quasi-experimental research methods. Education research and evidence-building is also becoming more participatory, reflexive, and people-centered — even in traditionally “quantitative” fields such as data and computer science. People-centered approaches to evidence-building include research-practice partnership work, participatory and design-based research. Several industries have become early adopters of participatory and design-based approaches — incorporating them into their product research to expeditiously inform the design of the products we use.

How can Educational Leaders Support EdTech Evidence Building Capacity in Schools?

Processes for using evidence to inform school practices that support positive student outcomes are clarified for school communities that need it most when educational leaders partner with state and local education agencies to offer guidance, resources, and technical assistance for evidence-building endeavors. In particular, developing streamlined processes for building and using evidence to inform adoption of edtech interventions is critical to effectively meeting students’ modern learning needs.

Educational leaders should integrate professional development in the area of evidence-building into evaluation processes and infrastructure as necessary capacity building activities to support districts and schools interested in using evidence to improve student outcomes. We outline below suggestions for the kinds of processes and infrastructure that educational leaders can advocate to support professional development for evidence building in districts and schools:

  • Use professional development to help school districts establish pathways to efficiently find existing evidence: Conducting a landscape analysis of existing evidence for a proposed intervention is an important first step in evidence-building. Professional development supporting access to evidence is integral to evidence building in schools. Developing such pathways can include training and technical assistance on how to use open-access sources of evidence-building such as local public libraries, resources from the field, federal repositories of educational research such as the Education Resources Information Center and the What Works Clearinghouse, or digital research search engines such as Google Scholar. It can also include strategies for collaborating with education researchers at higher education institutions to access education research. Development of practices supporting the identification and use of open education resources for schools also holds potential to inform connected learning and teaching — particularly for underserved communities.
  • Use professional development to help school districts accurately interpret and use evidence: The current education context amplifies the need to provide professional development for districts and schools in the interpretation and use of evidence to inform adoption of proposed edtech interventions. Professional development can tap into using publicly available evidence-based guidance to inform evidence-building, collaborating with organizations that specialize in education evaluation partnership work to engage in evidence-building activities, and developing in-house leadership within school districts to support future evidence-building practices.
  • Use professional development to help school districts engage in the collaborative work required to build evidence: Incrementally building an evidence base for the adoption of edtech interventions can be an intensive endeavor that often requires collaboration with internal and external partners to engage in the more technical aspects of education evaluation. Professional development for educational leaders in school districts can include strategies for establishing partnerships with education evaluation organizations and understanding the unique roles education researchers, teachers, parents, students, and administrators play to successfully engage in evidence-building partnership work among education evaluation organizations and schools.

Educational leaders, with support from local and state education agencies, can empower districts and schools to see themselves as evidence-builders by providing professional development that leverages and builds schools’ existing evidence use to inform edtech decisions. When educational leaders support professional development that incorporates evidence building, schools are empowered to iterate and improve their educational practices, including decisions regarding edtech adoption.

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Office of Ed Tech

OET develops national edtech policy & provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education. Examples ≠ endorsement