Universities often anchor longstanding research partnerships, but academics rarely get the same credit or institutional respect for working with school districts as they do for publishing in journals.
Two heavy-hitter education research philanthropies, the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, announced they have awarded a $650,000 grant to establish a professorship in education research-practitioner partnerships at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
U.C.-Boulder education researcher and evaluation professor Mimi Engel, assistant professor Allison Atteberry, also from U.C.Boulder, and Sarah Almy, the executive director of talent management for the Denver public schools, have three years to establish the position and an initial line of research focusing on improving the Denver teacher workforce by creating a longitudinal data archive, studying teacher retention patterns, and evaluating the district’s existing policies for recruiting and retaining teachers in schools with a high percentage of historically underserved students.
The professorship was one of two awards under the newly created Institutional Challenge Grant program launched last year. The other award went to the University of Toronto to work with Puerto Rico’s school district to evaluate the effects of school closures after Hurricane Maria. Both the Denver and Puerto Rico projects will have the option to apply for two additional years of support when the grants end.
Atteberry spoke with Education Week about how relationships between researchers and district leaders are evolving.
Most researchers and district leaders don’t have training before they start a research partnership. What’s wrong with the way they develop now?
The incentive structures of both the [district] partner and researchers in higher education are really set against building strong relationships and creating partnerships. Districts are strapped for time and resources and they have to make decisions on the fly as fast as they can in a real-world context. And, on the flip side, researchers in universities are really focused on a slower pace of research. It’s very important that the questions that you ask are at the cutting edge of the field and publishable, as opposed to actionable.
That can lead researchers to be less concerned about how that affects the partner. They don’t have a lot of incentives to be responsive. And products that often comes out are journal publications, which are not speaking to the audience from which the data was collected. I think that people realize that if we keep doing this over and over and over again, it really does damage to the relationship between us and the professionals we’re trying to support, and this group of kids that we’re trying to support. So I think people caught on, they saw this pattern and said, look, we’ve got to do something different.
How do you differentiate between the skills that are needed to build an ongoing research-practitioner partnership and those needed to have just a traditional one-off study in a district?
As opposed to a one-shot kind of relationship where you identify your research questions and come together, but don’t imagine that you’re going to work together long term, we think there has to be much more of a focus on infrastructure and relationship-building. You have to have the skills of communication and understanding and the ability to develop a shared research agenda to make sure that what we’re doing is really useful and high quality.
We’re still very much in conversation about exactly how [the program] is going to get rolled out, but I think [one part of the] research agenda is really to take up the idea of how to do partnered research effectively. The other one is to think about codifying knowledge of how to do actionable research right, bringing to bear the realities of policies on the ground.
Why do you think a professorship is needed?
Being a good partner is a skill and an area of expertise that people develop over time and if the university is really interested in producing high-quality research, this is a voice that should be at the table. A lot of people think that working with a district or working with any community partner is easy or doesn’t require any thought. And I think that’s where lots of universities and institutions of higher education have gone wrong and not done right by their community partners. And we’re really trying to change that by acknowledging that this is a genuine form of expertise.
We shouldn’t expect that one researcher here and there can be kind of heroic and work against all of the incentives that are in place against doing this work well and likewise, that the districts should just make time for this kind of partnership even though there are no incentives to do so. And I think people get that now.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.