Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Better Research-Practice Partnership: By Focusing on Real-Time District Challenges, Collaborations between Researchers and District Leaders Can Lead to Research That Is Timely, Relevant, and Actionable

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Better Research-Practice Partnership: By Focusing on Real-Time District Challenges, Collaborations between Researchers and District Leaders Can Lead to Research That Is Timely, Relevant, and Actionable

Article excerpt

Research organizations have been working in school districts for decades. But how useful and relevant has that research been for practitioners? Currently, policy makers and funders are scrutinizing these relationships to tackle that question.

Several weak spots in the relationship need shoring up. District leaders often feel that working with researchers is not mutually beneficial. Researchers may not provide enough practical guidance to inform decision making. Often, research is not available when district leaders need it to make a decision nor is it shared with them in a useful manner. Typically, it's steeped in academic language, and it emphasizes theory and methodology over specific recommendations. As district leaders work on complex problems of practice and simultaneously manage accountability pressures and declining resources, research work must directly support their mission to improve schools.

An emerging format for addressing these challenges is through research-practice partnerships (RPPs). These are "long-term, mutualistic collaborations between practitioners and researchers that are intentionally organized to investigate problems of practice and solutions for improving district outcomes" (Coburn, Penuel, & Giel, 2013, p. 2). By focusing on real-time district challenges, RPPs can lead to research that is more informative, timely, and relevant to district stakeholders.

Two different relationships

There are major differences between traditional relationships among researchers and school districts and those that characterize RPPs. We ground this discussion in our shared experiences as university researchers and a district leader working together on an eight-year research-practice partnership. We've adapted our work to support productive partnerships, and we proffer some recommendations for district leaders and researchers interested in engaging in an RPP.

The traditional relationship

Researchers conduct research in school districts all over the United States. Typically, researchers seek district sites for data collection to test hypotheses, develop or refine theories, or test programs or interventions. In most cases, researchers submit a research proposal to the research and evaluation department of a school district. If the application is approved, the subsequent interaction between the district and the researchers usually is minimal. District staff might assist in connecting the researcher with the appropriate personnel or providing researchers with district-collected data (for example, student achievement test data). Researchers may be asked to provide a report to the district research office, which is usually filed away with their initial application.

For the most part, these low-involvement relationships are not mutually beneficial. Researchers might work closely with study participants, but there are seldom mechanisms for district leaders to learn from the research. Further, researchers typically don't engage with leaders to collectively interpret the findings and answer questions that might arise.

The research-practice partnership

In contrast, RPPs use intentional strategies to foster productive relationships between researchers and district leaders so that research is relevant and meaningful to all involved. Researchers collaborate with district leaders to support district improvement efforts while also contributing to research and theory. In an RPP, district leaders and researchers collaboratively determine research goals and work together to use research findings to make informed decisions.

To illustrate this type of collaboration, we describe an eight-year design research partnership between Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Ky., and researchers at Vanderbilt University. Design research partnerships at the district level are long-term collaborations that seek to "build and study solutions at the same time in real-world contexts" (Coburn et al. …

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