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Cynthia Coburn

Cynthia Coburn

  • Professor, Human Development and Social Policy
  • Professor, Learning Sciences
  • Associate Fellow, Institute for Policy Research

Affiliated Center(s)

Institute for Policy Research

Research Interests

Relationship between research and policy; Relationship between instructional policy and teachers’ classroom practices in urban schools.


Cynthia E. Coburn is the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at the School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University. Coburn studies the relationship between instructional policy and teachers’ classroom practices in urban schools, the dynamics of school district policy making, and the relationship between research and practice for school improvement. She has won numerous awards for her scholarship, including the American Educational Research Association Early Career Award (2011), election as a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association (2015), an honorary doctorate (Doctor Honoris Causa) from CU Louvain in Belgium (2019), election to the National Academy of Education (2020), and Northwestern University’s Ver Steeg Distinguished Research Fellowship (2020). She is a member of the California Collaborative for District Reform, the DREME network investigating coherence of early mathematics instruction, the National Academy of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering NASEM) Standing Committee on Scientific Communication, and the NASEM Committee on the Future of Educational Research. Prior to graduate school, Coburn worked for a national non-profit organization that worked to support poor and minoritized communities in pushing for improvement in their local schools. Coburn has a BA in philosophy from Oberlin College, and a MA in Sociology and a PhD in Education from Stanford University.


  • PhD, Education, Stanford University, 2001
  • MA, Sociology, Stanford University, 1997
  • BA, Philosophy, Oberlin College, 1989

Selected Awards and Honors

  • 2021-2024  Charles Deering McCormick Professorship of Teaching Excellence, Northwestern University
  • 2020  Dorothy Ann and Clarence L. Ver Steeg Distinguished Research Fellowship, Northwestern University
  • 2020  Elected Member, National Academy of Education
  • 2019  Doctor Honoris Causa (Honorary Doctoral Degree), Faculty of Psychology and Education and the Psychological Sciences Research Institute, UC Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
  • 2015  Elected Fellow, American Educational Research Association, honoring “exceptional contributions to and excellence in educational research”
  • 2014  Association of Student Government Faculty and Administration Honor Roll, for excellence in undergraduate teaching, Northwestern University
  • 2014  Chair of Educational Change, Faculty of Education, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile
  • 2012  Chancellor’s Professor, University of California Berkeley
  • 2011  Early Career Award, in recognition of a distinguished portfolio of cumulative research within the first decade of career, American Educational Research Association 
  • 2010  Visiting Scholar, Center for Educational Policy and Innovation, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium

Selected Publications

Stein, M. A.* & Coburn, C. E. (in press). PreK – 3 initiatives: Challenges of fostering alignment and continuity in two school districts. Educational Policy.

Wong, L-S.*, Coburn, C. E. & Kamel, A.* (in press). How central office-school relationships shape school leaders’ instructional decision making: Evidence from two site-based decision making systems. Peabody Journal of Education.

Huguet, A.*, Coburn, C. E., Farrell, C. F., Kim, D. H.* & Allen, A-R. (2021). Constraints, values, and information: How district leaders justify their positions during instructional deliberations. American Educational Research Journal. Published online February 20, 2021.

Huguet, A.*, Wong, L-S.*, Harrison, C.*, Coburn, C. E., & Spillane, J. (2019). Research use and school leaders: A review of the evidence. In C. James, D. H. Eddy-Spicer, M. Connolly & S. D. Kruse (eds), The SAGE Handbook on School Organizations. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Tseng, V., & Coburn, C. E. (2019). The Changing Tides of Evidence Use in U.S. Education: From What Works to Continuous Improvement. In A. Boaz, H. Davies, A. Fraser & S. Nutley (eds), What Works Now: Evidence Informed Policy and Practice. UK: Policy Press.

Morel, R. P.*, Coburn, C. E., Catterson, A. K.*, & Higgs, J.* (2019). The multiple meanings of scale: Implications for researchers and practitioners. Educational Researcher, 48(6), 369-377

Farrell, C. C., Harrison, C.*, & Coburn, C. E. (2019). “What the hell is this and who the hell are you?”: Role negotiation in research-practice partnerships. AERA Open, 5(2). 

Farrell, C., & Coburn, C. E. (2018). The role of district absorptive capacity for organizational learning: An empirical study. American Education Research Journal, 955-994.

Morel R. P., & Coburn, C. E. (2018). Brokering in context: Exploring influence in a professional development network. American Education Research Journal, 247-288.