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School & District Management Opinion

4 Key Characteristics of Research-Practice Partnership Work

By Urban Education Contributor — July 12, 2018 6 min read
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This post is by Savitha Moorthy (@smoorthy), Director of STEM Equity Research at Digital Promise (@DigitalPromise), and Eileen Gilligan (@EileenGilligan), Assistant Principal of Doral Academy Red Rock Elementary School.

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: What Happens When Educators and Researchers Work Together in Partnerships?

While collaboration among educators and researchers is not a novel idea, research-practice partnerships (RPPs) are ushering in new ways they can work together and, arguably, a new standard of relevance to practice to which research is accountable. As such, there is considerable interest not only in the programs and practices developed by RPPs and their impact on students’ outcomes, but also in how educators and researchers are learning from one another and how, together, they are developing a different paradigm for engaging with research.

In Monday’s post, Kristen Davidson of the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) described findings from a national study of the RPPs that have been funded by the Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships in Education Research program. Kristen’s post highlighted findings related to the question, In what ways did educators and researchers shift their engagement with research by participating in an RPP? Today’s post dives deep into the experiences of one of the 27 RPPs involved in NCRPP’s study to illustrate some key findings in a specific setting—that of an RPP among district personnel at Clark County School District (CCSD) in Las Vegas, NV, and researchers at SRI International, focused on improving science learning experiences and outcomes for English learners in the elementary grades.

A research-practice partnership to promote English Language Learners’ science learning in the elementary grades

Our RPP focused on the science education of English Learners in the context of CCSD’s implementation of the Nevada Academic Content Standards for Science (NVACSS). Modeled on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the NVACCS emphasizes students’ participation in science practices. This presented an opportunity for integrating language development while building conceptual understanding, an appealing idea given the high concentrations of English Learners in CCSD. At the same time, district personnel were concerned that elementary teachers would need additional resources to engage students, particularly English Learners, in science practices. Both the opportunity and the concern were at the heart of the RPP, and the primary goal of the project was to identify, co-design, test, and refine supports for elementary teachers to provide high-quality science instruction for all students, with a specific focus on English Learners.

Our RPP involved two phases:

  • Clarifying and sharpening our understanding of the problem of practice. To do so, we designed an environmental scan of science learning in elementary schools, conducting secondary analyses of student achievement data and surveys and interviews with elementary principals and science teacher leaders.
  • Iteratively designing a context-sensitive set of supports for teachers. This involved the co-design of curriculum-aligned classroom resources to engage students in science talk and science practices, and two rounds of implementation at five CCSD elementary schools.

Throughout the course of our work, several characteristics emerged that were key to our research-practice partnership experience:

1) Using data and findings in decision-making

The focus on data, and the use of data for decision-making, was a distinctive feature of our RPP. The data collection and analysis activities of the environmental scan informed the development of a driver diagram where RPP members articulated the goal of the project (narrowing the science-learning gap between ELs and non-ELs on the 5th grade science CRT by 50 percent by 2018), key drivers (e.g., instruction should integrate opportunities for language development into science learning experiences), and evidence-based change ideas for teachers (e.g., ask students to back their claims with evidence). Findings from surveys of principals and teachers also informed the selection of schools for interview data collection and, during the design phase, for identifying schools and teachers to implement the RPP-designed teacher supports.

2) Making research relevant to district leaders and educators

The aim and activities of the RPP were explicitly aligned with key district priorities, including: the district-wide implementation plan for the NVACSS and the adoption of the FOSS science curriculum at elementary schools; the districts’ “Master Plan” for ELs, which targeted authentic opportunities for promoting students’ language development; and the statewide teacher evaluation tool, the Nevada Educator Performance Framework (NEPF), which emphasizes high-quality student discourse as a key indicator of teacher performance. While working with school leaders and teacher stakeholders, we highlighted the connection between RPP activities and district priorities to illustrate how implementing the resources developed by the RPP were in service of teachers’ day-to-day teaching while addressing district initiatives to which they were accountable.

3) Including educators, and their input, in the research

During the design phase, the RPP team interviewed teachers at implementing schools to learn more about their experiences, successes, and challenges using the materials developed by the RPP to help engage students in science practices. Input from teacher stakeholders after the first round of implementation pushed the team towards aligning the teacher resources more closely with the FOSS curriculum and streamlining the Plan-Do-Study-Act process to reduce the burden on teachers.

4) Collaborating and learning together

To complete project tasks, the RPP team adopted a collaborative divide-and-conquer approach. The team split into smaller working groups, each comprising a practice and a research partner, to draft data collection instruments, administer surveys and conduct interviews, and carry out data analysis. Being immersed in the research process with a partner from “the other side” helped both educators and researchers develop a nuanced view of how to connect theory and practice.

The various data collection, analysis, and design activities of the RPP provided district personnel and researchers with just-in-time, context-bound opportunities to exchange knowledge and expertise, develop common language, construct shared understanding of our focal problem of practice, and jointly shape a research agenda to address it. In the process, the RPP became a ‘site’ where educators and researchers learned from one another and, together, we developed our knowledge and skills to conduct research together.

In conclusion

For both educators and researchers, the experience of participating in an RPP shifted our view of what it means to engage in research. For district personnel, the RPP deepened their appreciation for education research, and made them more aware of how the particular problems and challenges of their district resonated with other contexts. For researchers, participating in an RPP brought about a greater understanding that all research projects could be approached as RPPs, regardless of whether they are explicitly labeled as such, and researchers should identify a practice site at the inception of a project, and develop a research agenda collaboratively with practice partners. Together, educators and researchers learned how questions of practice can drive the research agenda and how, ultimately, research can be held accountable to the standard of relevance to practice.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.