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Building And Sustaining Research-Practice Partnerships

Our guest author today is Bill Penuel, professor of educational psychology and learning sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. He leads the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, which investigates how school and district leaders use research in decision-making. Bill is co-Principal Investigator of the Research+Practice Collaboratory (funded by the National Science Foundation) and of a study about research use in research-practice partnerships (supported by the William T. Grant Foundation). This is the second of two posts on research-practice partnerships - read the part one here; both posts are part of The Social Side of Reform Shanker Blog series.

In my first post on research-practice partnerships, I highlighted the need for partnerships and pointed to some potential benefits of long-term collaborations between researchers and practitioners. But how do you know when an arrangement between researchers and practitioners is a research-practice partnership? Where can people go to learn about how to form and sustain research-practice partnerships? Who funds this work?

In this post I answer these questions and point to some resources researchers and practitioners can use to develop and sustain partnerships.

Defining Research-Practice Partnerships

In a white paper developed for the William T. Grant Foundation, my colleagues Cynthia Coburn, Kimberly Geil, and I identified some defining features of partnerships. After reviewing the literature and interviewing leaders from a number of partnerships, here’s what we found:

Partnerships are long-term. In a partnership, everyone’s in it for the long haul. A good indicator that a collaboration is a partnership proper is they’ve made it through turnover, and the participants have worked on more than one project together. In other words, they’ve had to grapple with two big threats to partnerships, changing people and the end of funding.

Partnerships are mutualistic. In a partnership, there’s a commitment to contributors benefiting from their participation in joint work. Here, “benefit” means more than an exchange of money for services or data. It means that there’s a give-and-take with respect to the focus of the work, and a genuine interest in helping other people address their problems, whether that’s a teacher who needs better curriculum materials or a researcher who needs data on a new approach to professional development she’s developed.

Partnerships are intentionally organized. Partnerships don’t happen by accident. Teams forming partnerships need to carefully consider who needs to be at the table, how they are going to decide on the focus of their work, and how they’ll know when they are successful. They need to attend to equity, taking into account what voices typically get left out when naming problems and searching for solutions.

Partnerships are focused on problems of practice. Researchers typically study what other researchers think is important to study. But, in a research-practice partnership, the focus is on problems of practice defined in collaboration with educational practitioners. Successful partnerships may also include youth, family, and community voices in defining the problems to be studied and addressed.

Collaborations that share these features are not particularly common in education. They require a lot of effort to develop and maintain. The outcomes are often difficult to define, and it’s easy for participants to become discouraged by turnover in the partnership and sudden changes to the priorities of policymakers at the federal, state, and district level. At the same time, lots of people are excited about partnerships, and they want to know how to get started and how to find resources to support their work.

Getting Started with Research-Practice Partnerships

There are a number of places to read about examples of research-practice partnerships and to find tools that can help newly forming partnerships decide on a focus of their work together and study the impacts of solutions they design together:

The William T. Grant Foundation has a focus area on “Connecting Research, Policy, and Practice," where you can find the white paper mentioned earlier. This document describes different types of partnerships, and includes case studies of each (e.g., research alliance, a design research partnership, a networked improvement community etc.)

Key to developing partnerships is being intentional about goals and the organization of the partnership. An example of this is the Research+Practice Collaboratory, a National Science Foundation-funded effort that is developing and testing new models for relating research and practice. The focus is on supporting and studying improvement initiatives in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. One of the questions the Collaboratory is exploring in its “adaptation sites” is whether design research partnerships can support improvements to teaching and learning in a large urban school district, a rural school district, and a network of informal education programs.

Partnerships also benefit from having a model for how research will inform the work of the partnership. One such model is Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR). DBIR projects share four features: (a) a focus on persistent problems of practice from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives; (b) a commitment to iterative, collaborative design; (c) a concern with developing theory related to both classroom learning and implementation through systematic inquiry; and (d) a concern with developing capacity for sustaining change in systems. There are case studies of DBIR, resources, and workshops to help organize DBIR projects at The R+P Collaboratory adaptation sites are using the DBIR approach. In addition, researchers in the Collaboratory are facilitating the work of a group of Math-Science Partnerships funded by both the NSF and U.S. Department of Education to investigate strategies for negotiating problems of practice that can become the focus of joint work. They are presenting on this topic at this week’s conference for grantees in these two programs.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching holds workshops on a form of DBIR called "Improvement Research." Their efforts are focused on building understanding of how to focus continuous improvement efforts around small tests of change that build toward big, positive impacts on educational systems. Carnegie and its partners have shown early success in developing powerful interventions to improve developmental mathematics teaching and learning in community colleges.

Finally, my colleagues Cynthia Coburn, Caitlin Farrell, Annie Allen and I are also engaged in an empirical study of research-practice partnerships. In our study, we are examining the dynamics of partnerships and how partnership design and the local context shape these dynamics and, in turn, research use in districts. Together with our colleagues James P. Spillane, Heather Hill, and Derek Briggs, we will be continuing to explore research use in partnerships through the new National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, an IES-funded Knowledge Utilization Center. Stay tuned for more about this work.

Who Funds Research-Practice Partnerships?

Finally, there are a few programs to which researchers and practitioners seeking funding can turn to, such as the US Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences’ Researcher-Practitioner Partnership program, and the National Science Foundation’s STEM-C Partnerships program.  These programs provide funding for forming deeper partnerships, as well as for joint work to improve outcomes for students.

For partnerships that want to try out a DBIR approach to organizing research and development, there are two programs to which partnerships can apply. At the Institute of Education Sciences, the Continuous Improvement Research in Education supports this kind of research. At the National Science Foundation, the Implementation Research strand of the DRK-12 program is a program that funds DBIR projects.

Bridging the Divide: A Plea for Persistence

Funding for collaborations between researchers and practitioners is short-term, but real partnerships take many years to develop and mature. During that time, leaders will change jobs, and priorities will shift. Much can benefit can still be gained from researchers and practitioners working together through such changes, but it takes persistence, patience, and a willingness to work through difficulties.

One way to think of a research-practice partnership is that it’s the foundation for a new infrastructure for relating research and practice. It may be small and local, but it is rich in relationships and commitment to solving big problems of education. Those relationships, as this series in the Shanker Blog indicate, are key to lasting reform. 

- Bill Penuel

This post is part of a series on “The Social Side Of Reform," exploring the idea that relationships, social capital, and social networks matter in lasting, systemic educational improvement. For more on this series, click here


Thanks for the shout out to the NSF programs. An important new line of research with many important questions and problem spaces to examine.


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