Absorptive capacity: A conceptual framework for understanding district central office learning

Caitlin C. Farrell*, Cynthia E. Coburn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Globally, school systems are pressed to engage in large-scale school improvement. In the United States and other countries, school district central offices and other local governing agencies often engage with external organizations and individuals to support such educational change efforts. However, initiatives with external partners are not always productive. We draw on the idea of absorptive capacity to present a conceptual framework for understanding when and under what conditions partnerships are likely to foster district learning and support change efforts. We contend that prior knowledge, communication pathways, strategic knowledge leadership, and resources to partner are preconditions for a district central office’s absorptive capacity, and we identify the features of the external partner that likely matter for productive partnering. We argue that the relationship between district absorptive capacity and features of the partner is mediated by the nature of the interactions between district and partner, with likely consequences for organizational learning outcomes. For researchers, this framework serves as a tool for understanding how a district central office can learn from an external partner for educational improvement efforts. For school district leaders and external partners, this framework provides a structure for thinking strategically about when and under what conditions a partnership is likely to be productive.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)135-159
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Educational Change
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2017


  • Absorptive capacity
  • District capacity
  • District central office
  • External partner
  • Organizational learning
  • Organizational theory
  • Partnership
  • School system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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