Repackaging Research Findings is Not Enough: Building Partnerships for a Practitioner-Driven Research Agenda

Originally published June 30, 2016 on the London School of Economics Impact Blog.

If you want educators to use research, you might reconsider your approach to producing research. Researchers often lament the divide between education research and practice, sometimes implying that practitioners should pay more heed to published research findings. In the U.S., education research production in universities and research organizations is too often isolated from the education practice in state education agencies, district central offices, schools and classrooms. The twain meet, but just barely. A researcher may use a set of schools as a data source, but then discuss results and the design of the next study mainly with other researchers.

To remedy this disconnect, some researchers repackage their findings to make them more accessible. Mesmin Destin writes about his study of student motivation and college access for both Phi Delta Kappan, a practitioner publication, and the academic journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Angela Duckworth has taken her work on grit to millions through TED Talks, television and radio appearances, and self-help books. Many researchers now create infographics, videos, briefs, and podcasts to make their research easier for those on the practice or decision-making side to understand and use.

Is this enough? Given the complex social systems surrounding teaching and learning, maybe not. Even when scholars communicate broadly about results, under the traditional model, researchers still drive the research agenda with nobody riding shotgun. Some education researchers are challenging this traditional model by putting education practitioners in the driver’s seat. Following the Consortium on Chicago School Research prototype, U.S. universities and research organizations are increasingly forming research-practice partnerships (RPPs) with local and state education agencies.

RPPs build relationships between researchers and practitioners. From that base, the research agenda is negotiated to answer the needs of those in practice. Using education agency data, research teams conduct rigorous high-quality studies and share results with practitioners in presentations and short reports, opening the way for practitioners to take next steps in programming and policy. Many RPPs, like those in Baltimore, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego, and New York, sprang from the close coordination of nearby universities with large urban school districts. In other cases, research organizations (such as the American Institutes for Research, my home base) build government-funded contract work into a portfolio of projects, partnering with a local agency.

This model has legs. In the past five years, the federal research arm of the Department of Education, the Institute of Education Science, has increasingly backed RPPs. Funding individual RPPs through small grants and restructuring the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) program’s work promote the new model of collaboration. Since 2012, some 79 RPPs have been created under the REL program alone.

One of the more than 20 of these regional RPPs that my colleagues participate in shows how and how well this model can work. The Midwest Educator Effectiveness Research Alliance brings together state and district practitioners from Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin eager to use research-based tools and strategies to develop, identify, and retain excellent educators. Researchers in this alliance have worked with the Minnesota Department of Education to develop surveys that districts use to gather information from students and school staff on their experiences implementing teacher- and principal-evaluation systems.

The Minnesota survey development working group went shoulder to shoulder with the state’s Department of Education to redesign its study of teacher supply and demand to better identify teacher shortages, teacher workforce characteristics, attrition rates, student enrollment forecasts, and the availability of substitute teachers. The study results prompted Minnesota’s Department of Education and legislature to enact key changes to teacher workforce policy, including the expansion of reciprocal licensure with neighboring states.

A head start and elbow grease account in part for this partnership’s success. From the start, Minnesota’s research alliance had a practitioner-driven research agenda and project roster, but the partnership revved up collaboration between researchers and practitioners. Two- to three-person stakeholder advisory groups for each project met every six weeks to mull over project design.

Meanwhile, the larger group of officials and their researcher partners all championed the importance of incorporating the thoughts and opinions of teachers, administrators, and others with a direct stake in Minnesota’s principal-evaluation practices. Researchers in the partnership now point gratefully to the high-quality actionable data that the collaboratively created survey yielded while the state’s chief evaluation specialist welcomed the practitioner perspectives that informed the survey work.

Kinks remain in the partnership model. Collaborations like these require significant investments of time from practitioner partners who already have a full workload. And researchers on typical career paths don’t get rewarded for the relationship-building and communication skills that make RPPs successful. But, experience so far suggests, negotiating a research agenda with end users and tapping them as advisors as projects progress has increased both the quality of the information collected and the power of research to change policy and practice.

Julie Kochanek is a managing director at AIR and director of the Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest.

Julie Kochanek
Senior Vice President, Human Services