School & District Management Opinion

Bridging Research and Practice Through a Scholarship of Improvement

By Urban Education Contributor — April 12, 2018 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This post is by Ash Vasudeva, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (@CarnegieFdn).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: Learning Improvement Science.

How can the disparate and often disconnected relationships between educational researchers and practitioners—characterized by different priorities, focus-areas, and incentive systems—evolve into more productive partnerships that inform a scholarship of improvement? That was the topic of the inaugural “Academic Symposium” that took place on Tuesday, April 3rd in conjunction with the 5th Annual Carnegie Summit on Improvement in Education.

What is the Academic Symposium?

Like the larger Improvement Summit, which was described in greater detail in Monday’s post, the Academic Symposium was designed to showcase and strengthen efforts that integrate research and practice to increase equitable opportunities and outcomes in P-16 education. While the Improvement Summit brought together a diverse array of people from school districts, universities, philanthropies, and not-for-profit organizations, the Academic Symposium focused on members of the research community that prioritize collaborating with practitioners to make progress on challenging problems of practice such as improving mathematics and literacy instruction, increasing high school graduation rates, and integrating social-emotional learning into school and classroom environments.

Because practice-focused research is not yet mainstream in the academy, researchers at the Academic Symposium relished the opportunity to connect with similarly-minded colleagues and cultivate a community that could help advance this work in the coming years. Indeed, the symposium is the most recent effort to organize a “big-tent” of researchers who share similar values, dispositions, and orientations toward building and using evidence in order to strengthen instructional systems. Several recent complementary efforts have included gatherings sponsored by the Spencer Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation and have been coordinated by groups such as the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Network of Education Research Practice Partnerships, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and California Education Partners.

To mobilize researchers around systems improvement, Symposium co-organizers Jenn Russell from the University of Pittsburgh and Don Peurach from the University of Michigan created an agenda with three distinct sessions:

  1. Elaborating the scholarship of improvement, in which participants identified types of improvement research, from examining the impacts of policy and governance reforms to examining the impacts of project- and program- implementation.

  1. Organizing to advance the scholarship of improvement featured researchers from diverse organizations — including the Strategic Education Research Project and the National Implementation Research Network — who identified strengths and challenges to doing their work in the larger field; and

  1. Institutionalizing the scholarship of improvement, where participants described and discussed possible ways to support and advance the work of a collaborative effort, including how these diverse groups might work together through federations, alliances, or associations.

Several broad themes emerged across the sessions.

The “Tailwinds” Supporting Improvement Work Across Research and Practice

First, it’s clear that efforts to better integrate academic and practitioner communities are being buoyed by larger forces and trends. For example, one trend over the last two decades has been increased attention and pressure to improve public education, and the commensurate pressure on schools of education and professional organizations to demonstrate their contribution toward this social goal.

Another has been the rise of organizations focused on using evidence in a variety of ways to advance equitable educational opportunities and outcomes in America’s schools. Participants in the Symposium recognized seminal efforts from the 1990s and early 2000s such as the UChicago Consortium on School Research and the Strategic Education Research Partnership as inspiring a growing number of research-practice partnerships across the country. Books such as “Learning to Improve” — and conferences like the Summit on Improvement — have brought a set of ideas for more productively integrating research and practice to a field ready to move beyond the policy-frames and rhetoric of compliance and accountability. These forces and others have been tailwinds to an “Improvement Movement” that has the potential to bring practice-centric scholarship into the mainstream of academia.

The “Headwinds” Inhibiting Improvement Work Across Research and Practice

At the same time, participants at the Symposium recognized considerable headwinds complicating this type of work. Incentive structures that prioritize publications in academic journals are slow to change, as are the advisory boards that signal what types of scholarship are valued by the larger community. These pressures are most pronounced on junior scholars, who are often urged to conduct traditional research to get tenure and do more practice-focused work only after their faculty position is firmly established. More broadly, participants recognized the challenge of working across different institutional contexts (e.g., school systems, research centers, schools of education) each with their own time- and resource demands, expectations and norms around the pace-of-change, and disparate stakeholders to whom they are accountable.

Learning From Improvement Efforts in Healthcare

Reflecting on the analogous issues confronting improvement efforts in the healthcare industry (efforts which inspired the current work in education and generally predate it), Symposium participant Dr. Paul Batalden, Emeritus Professor of the Dartmouth for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, offered three suggestions for the fledgling movement.

First, he suggested the importance of finding common ground rather than dividing into smaller factions, emphasizing that people need to understand the cornerstones they all share without getting lost in the smaller details. Second, Batalden described the importance of a high-trust community that works closely with one another to develop their collective ideas with supportive peers and without a fear of public failure and/or “intellectual theft.” Third, Bataladen recommended being crystal clear about the group’s value proposition. In healthcare, he told the group, they personified a patient (“Esther”) and asked themselves what value their improvement efforts had for her. He elaborated that any work proposed needed to have a direct connection to — and improve the care of — patients inside the healthcare system.

Given the historical fissures between educational scholars and practitioners, Dr. Batalden’s prescription seems like just the right medicine to invigorate a scholarship of improvement. Going forward, we hope to keep these conversations going, integrate new voices, and continue to build a big tent that brings together scholars and practitioners committed to expanding opportunities and redressing inequities in U.S. education — stay tuned!

Related Tags:

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.