ESSA: An Opportunity For Research-Practice Partnerships To Support Districts And States

Our guest authors today are Bill Penuel, professor of learning sciences and human development in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Caitlin C. Farrell, director of the National Center of Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) at the University of Colorado Boulder. This piece is adapted from the authors’ chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform, edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

Many parts of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) call on schools, districts, and states to select “evidence-based programs.” Many state plans now being developed include strategies for meeting these provisions of the law. These state plans in development vary widely. Some mainly pass through responsibilities for selecting evidence-based programs to districts. Other states are considering ways to integrate continuous improvement research that would focus on studying the implementation of evidence-based programs.

Our book chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Reform presents a number of scenarios where long-term research-practice partnerships (RPPs) have helped districts select, adapt, and design evidence-based programs. RPPs are long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between practitioners and researchers around problems of practice. This promising strategy has been growing in popularity in recent years, and there is now even a network of RPPs to support exchange among them.

In the chapter, we argue that ESSA presents a great opportunity to strengthen this approach to reform, in which educators collaborate with each other and with researchers. The value of such partnerships, we argue in the chapter, is that they can help ensure that evidence-based programs are adapted effectively to local contexts. In addition, where no evidence-based programs exist to address important problems, a research-practice partnership with the right expertise, authority, and resources can develop and test one together.

A good example of where a research-practice partnership is working to support plans related to ESSA is an effort by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research to support the implementation of a “fifth indicator” for school accountability. ESSA calls for states to choose an indicator of school quality beyond achievement scores, and many states are at the earliest stages of selecting an indicator. In Tennessee, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance is called out as a key partner in the state’s ESSA plan. The Consortium and the state of Illinois are in many ways ahead of other states, in that they’ve been working together in partnership to integrate the Consortium’s successful measures of five essential supports for school reforms used in Chicago into the state accountability system. They didn’t just choose the indicator and move on, either. The Consortium is involved in ongoing study of the validity and reliability of scales, as well as of the consequences of integrating supports data into the accountability system. You can learn more about this effort, as well as other partnerships’ efforts to build fifth indicator systems in this joint webinar of the Research+Practice Collaboratory and the National Education Policy Center.

As part of a broader initiative to help states identify ways that partnerships can support ESSA implementation, the Research+Practice Collaboratory convened a group of policy leaders, educators, and researchers to develop hypothetical scenarios for how partnerships can help address other areas of ESSA. They developed scenarios together for how partnerships can support implementation of plans for school improvement, rural education, and English learners, among others. These scenarios are available in a guide for partnerships to ESSA implementation here. We also developed a policy brief for states interested in learning more about how partnerships can help them with ESSA implementation. The William T. Grant Foundation and the National Science Foundation has funded this work.

Our Teaching in Context chapter provides a more in-depth look at some actual case studies of partnerships. These case studies present both the reality and the promise of research-practice partnerships. They point to the challenges of adopting programs “off the shelf” that are supposed to work, without considering how they need to be adapted. And, they point to ways that long-term partnerships can support districts in addressing the inevitable challenges of implementing programs. We hope that states and districts will look at these different resources as part of their efforts to seek out ways to implement ESSA. And for other researchers, we hope these guides provide a sense of the ways that they can be useful partners to states as they move from planning to implementation of ESSA.