So...you understand the importance of research, identified which research inputs you are interested in, you have designated time to do it or hired someone else to do it for you, and yet you still might be wondering: How is the research done? Good research has a few things in common: an absence of bias, specific questions and desired outcomes, a variety of data points, and reporting that synthesizes information in order to draw relevant conclusions. High quality research is not beyond your reach internally, but it does require an investment of time, energy, and financial resources.
"What is the methodology?" And that answer, I'm afraid, is "it depends". Generally speaking, research falls into the two well-known categories of quantitative and qualitative.
In our work, we generally employ a few different methods of research depending on the project. From the qualitative side, we commonly use surveys, both web based and by telephone. We also use focus groups, and have especially seen value in doing in-person exit interviews. More quantitative data comes from both public and private sources. Data sets for demographic trend projections are widely available simply by looking at census data. It is also typically available through any number of accrediting agencies or through NAIS. Market segmentation analysis is slightly more complicated - we have chosen to use one or both of the two industry leading sources for this information depending on your particular needs. While not an exhaustive list, these are the same types of methods you might use if you were taking on research yourself.
So, back to the beginning: the components of strong research. While most, if not all, of this research can be done in house, it is nearly impossible for school leaders to be truly unbiased. The impact of a third party investigator allows for much needed distance and perspective, and presents opportunities for qualitative responders to provide different information than if they were talking directly to school staff.
The mechanics of strong research - the art of running an effective focus group, writing a good survey or facilitating a useful interview, and understanding the information that you receive once you've sunk your teeth into sets of data - takes some practice and some investment of time.
It is tempting to take the short cut of focusing on only a few data points, when the reality is that it is the convergence of several that allows patterns and answers to emerge.
Finally, and here's the key, synthesizing the information in a useful, digestible format with actionable outcomes requires serious thought, multiple drafts, and lots of revision. I like to build in plenty of time at the end of my research projects to let the information "marinate". I'll write a draft of my report, sleep on it a day or two, then recheck it against each data point. I typically make yet another list the questions I'm trying to answer, and make notes about each one separately before trying on my conclusions for size again. This is followed by writing out recommendations that relate to each key conclusion.
Hopefully this gives you some idea behind the "how" of research and some places you might begin exploring research inputs you are interested in. The lynchpin question, though, is how to use it. That's coming next.