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Why Teachers And Researchers Should Work Together For Improvement

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. This is the first of two posts on research-practice partnerships; both are part of The Social Side of Education Reform series.

Policymakers are asking a lot of public school teachers these days, especially when it comes to the shifts in teaching and assessment required to implement new, ambitious standards for student learning. Teachers want and need more time and support to make these shifts. A big question is: What kinds of support and guidance can educational research and researchers provide?

Unfortunately, that question is not easy to answer. Most educational researchers spend much of their time answering questions that are of more interest to other researchers than to practitioners.  Even if researchers did focus on questions of interest to practitioners, teachers and teacher leaders need answers more quickly than researchers can provide them. And when researchers and practitioners do try to work together on problems of practice, it takes a while for them to get on the same page about what those problems are and how to solve them. It’s almost as if researchers and practitioners occupy two different cultural worlds.

If we want to bridge the divide between the worlds of research and practice, we need some good ways of thinking about that bridge. And if we want productive relationships between researchers and practitioners to develop, we need some robust infrastructures for collaboration, as Finnigan and Daly point out in their earlier post in this series. In this post, I argue that intentional organizing of partnerships between researchers and practitioners is hard but worthwhile work. As I explain below, this kind of effort has resulted in effective programs for students, and can support the implementation of systemic reform initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards.

How Should Research and Practice Relate?

This week, education researchers at the fall conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness are focusing on how to design and conduct research that is relevant to practice. The sessions and conference theme, "Common Ground for Practice and Research," underscore the need for more and better partnerships between researchers and practitioners to address persistent problems of practice.

Many researchers in this and other organizations believe the greatest challenge the field faces is to bring research findings to practice. In their view, schools and districts would be better places if more practitioners would use evidence from high-quality studies to guide their decision making, instead of relying on anecdote or letting politics interfere.

Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence from education that this approach alone can work to transform practice. In fact, more than 30 years ago, researcher Carol Weiss conducted a series of studies of how government leaders make decisions. She found that leaders did use research to inform their practice, but guiding decision-making was among the rarer forms of research use. Conversely, for the most part, policy makers used research conceptually, to get new ideas about how to solve problems and to help them see problems differently.

Weiss also found that when leaders did use research to inform decision-making, it was only one among a number of considerations that leaders had to take into account.  Leaders can’t simply put concerns of stakeholders aside, or ignore the fact that there are likely to be conflicts that arise from a decision to allocate resources to one program and not another. In other words, politics is always part of decision making, even when evidence informs those decisions.

Her findings resonate with what my colleagues Cynthia Coburn, Caitlin Farrell, and Annie Allen and I are finding among district leaders trying to support implementation of Common Core in mathematics. These leaders are taking a lot of ideas from research and using them to design new programs (rather than choose among existing ones), organize professional development for teachers, and create new course pathways for students. But they also have to anticipate parent and community responses and figure out how to make the most of limited resources.

Moreover, it isn’t just research findings that district leaders find valuable; it is interactions with researchers who help them solve problems as they arise that leaders value the most.

These findings point to the need for a different way of thinking about how to bridge the divide between research and practice. Bridging the divide means working together to investigate problems that matter to practitioners. It means working together to design, test, and improve programs that could make a big difference for all students in all schools. It means developing long-term relationships built on trust and mutualism. In short, our challenge is not to bring research to practice, but rather to partner in research with practice.

What Difference Can Research-Practice Partnerships Make?

In a white paper developed for the William T. Grant Foundation, my colleagues Cynthia Coburn, Kimberly Geil and I reviewed research on research-practices partnerships in education and related fields. Here’s some of what we found:

The products of research-practice partnerships can improve student learning. A number of partnerships have developed and tested programs that target specific learning needs. For example, Word Generation, an intervention developed as part of the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) that targets middle school students’ academic language, has strong evidence of efficacy from a randomized controlled trial. Comparison group studies of innovative science curriculum units in science developed by research-practice partnerships have also shown promise for improving student learning.

Partnerships can impact teaching practice. Research has also documented positive effects of interventions developed by partnerships on teaching and assessment practice. Partnerships have also helped to build teacher leadership capacity in districts and support effective curriculum implementation.

The evidence that research-practice partnerships can improve outcomes is even better in fields such as public health and social services, where there is an abundance of research documenting positive outcomes for individuals, organizations, and even entire communities.

Partnerships may be critical if we are to “correct course” on Common Core implementation and to build capacity for the Next Generation Science Standards, which are now being adopted by states. Standards implementation present great challenges for which there are no ready-made answers from research or practice. By working together, though, researchers and practitioners may help build capacity for continuous improvement for many years to come.

In my next post I will outline what we know about the key characteristics of research-practice partnerships and describe some resources to build and sustain them. 

- Bill Penuel

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

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