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Reason-Giving in Educational Decision Making: The Role of Research and Data

Sat, April 6, 4:10 to 6:10pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Floor: 200 Level, Room 201B


Purpose. Traditionally conceptualized as linear and rational, updated understandings of educational decisionmaking recognize it as a process that occurs over time and is influenced by factors such as resource constraints, authority and status (Author, 2008). We add to this more complex view of decisionmaking by zooming in on a particular element of deliberation: reason-giving. We ask: Within deliberations about educational policy and practice, what types of reasons do district leaders and advisors use to support their positions? How do patterns of reason-giving vary based on the type of policy deliberation?

Framework. Decisions emerge through series of conversations in which ways of thinking about problems evolves and small, incremental steps set the organization on a particular course. To understand these processes, we draw on conceptual tools from frame theory (Goffman, 1974, Snow & Benford, 1988). Frame analysis illuminates the ways ideas are produced and invoked to mobilize people. Central to this approach is the insight that people implicitly or explicitly identify a problem and adjoining solution. Within this framework, people draw on reasons to justify why something is, or is not, a problem or its solution.
Hence, reason-giving is a critical dimension to understanding the dynamics of deliberation. It also likely varies by decision context, problem type or the types of people who are negotiating the problem

Methods and data. Within one urban district, we observed 2.5 years of district staff meetings about mathematics (n=372 hours) and interviewed district leaders (n=101 interviews). We identified three decisionmaking trajectories related to the upcoming implementation of the Common Core State Standards-Mathematics. In the revising course pathways trajectory, the group decided between a continuation of 8th grade Algebra for all or acceleration options for some. In the selecting curriculum trajectory, the group considered whether to continue contracting with a “back to basics” curriculum-provider or, instead, revise the curriculum to promote higher-order thinking. In the designing curriculum trajectory, the group designed a new mathematics curriculum. In each trajectory, we identified people’s problem (an issue to deal with) or solution (ways to deal with it) positions and their associated reasons.

Results. We created an original typology of reasons that district leaders drew on in their deliberations: design principles (ideas that guide design work), stakeholder considerations (e.g., teachers, parents), design conditions (conditions that enable/ constrain work), beliefs about learning and math instruction, real-world examples, invoking authority or expertise, policy, data, research. We found that district leaders relied heavily on design principles, stakeholder considerations, and design conditions. Some reasons, like data, were infrequent in the overall distribution but played a critical role in deliberation. Trajectory characteristics also mattered for reason-giving. Stakeholder considerations were most frequently invoked in revising course pathways, design conditions were most frequently invoked in designing curriculum, while beliefs about learning and math instruction and design principles were most infrequently invoked in selecting curriculum.

Scholarly significance. By providing insight into the nature of deliberations at the central office level, these findings demonstrate that reason-giving is multi-faceted, and dependent upon the nature of the decision.


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