School & District Management Opinion

How Can Education Research-Practice Partnerships Assess Their Effectiveness?

By Urban Education Contributor — October 30, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This post summarizes a new framework for assessing the effectiveness of research-practice partnerships introduced in a recent paper by Erin C. Henrick (@erinhenrick), Paul Cobb, William R. Penuel (@bpenuel), Kara Jackson, and Tiffany Clark (@TiffanyPhD). Stay tuned: Thursday, we will share a district leader’s perspective on the framework.

Research-practice partnerships (RPPs) have emerged as a potentially powerful avenue for generating and applying research evidence in settings where young people grow and learn. As the landscape of RPPs has grown in size and stature, however, the literature on how to gauge the effectiveness of these partnerships has remained sparse. A new paper, supported with a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation, seeks to address this shortage by outlining the goals that are shared by a range of existing research-practice partnerships in the field of education, as well as providing guidance on where to look for evidence that these goals are being met.

Assessing Research-Practice Partnerships: Five Dimensions of Effectiveness by Erin C. Henrick, Paul Cobb, William R. Penuel, Kara Jackson, and Tiffany Clark presents a unified framework that can not only help partnerships monitor and improve on their work, but can also help funders of RPPs understand the objectives that proposed partnerships are aiming toward, as well as the progress that funded RPPs are making. Insight into the unique perspectives of those involved in existing research-practice partnerships is especially valuable because, as the authors write, “traditional ways of assessing the quality of a research study—such as the number of publications in peer reviewed research journals—do not adequately address critical aspects of RPP work, such as the development of a genuine partnership between researchers and practitioners or the impact of the RPP on the participating practice and research organizations.”

At a Glance: Five Dimensions of RPP Effectiveness

The framework’s five dimensions are applicable to a broad range of partnerships. Recent research indicates that partnerships of all stripes strive toward the goals listed in each dimension, which focus both on an RPP’s outcomes and the quality of the partnership itself:

1. Building trust and cultivating partnership relationships

Strong interpersonal relationships that are built on a foundation of trust are essential to RPPs, and partnerships that lack such relationships are likely to fail. Among other indicators of progress toward cultivating productive partnership relationships, RPPs that are effective in this dimension routinely work together, establish norms and routines, and recognize partners’ diverse forms of expertise.

2. Conducting rigorous research to inform action

The authors report that often education research has little impact on practice “for the straightforward reason that it is not relevant to practitioners’ concerns.” Research-practice partnerships, though, seek to leverage research for the expressed purpose of addressing problems of practice. RPPs generally help to clarify such problems and identify strategies to tackle them, while operating systematically to develop processes and structures for data collection, analysis, and reporting, as well as balancing research rigor and feasibility.

3. Supporting the partner practice organization in achieving its goals

A key characteristic of RPP research, as opposed to much traditional research, is that it is explicitly designed to support the practice partner’s goals. While assessing such efforts may be challenging in light of the influence of local contexts on partnership work, the authors note that it is “essential for RPPs to determine feasible ways to assess the impact of their work on local improvement efforts.” Indicators of an RPP’s progress toward positive impact include helping the practice organization identify ways to address problems of practice, providing research and evidence to support improvement, and informing implementation of improvement strategies.

4. Producing knowledge that can inform educational improvement efforts more broadly

In addition to supporting partners’ improvement goals, the majority of research-practice partnerships seek to strengthen or influence research and practice beyond their own RPP. While different partnerships will pursue this objective in different ways, broader contributions may be evidenced by the development of knowledge and theory that contributes to a larger body of research, the development of dissemination plans for both the partnership and wider audiences, and the creation and sharing of tools or processes that are adaptable to new settings outside of the partnership.

5. Building the capacity of participating researchers, practitioners, practice organizations, and research organizations to engage in partnership work

Collaboration, especially among individuals who have worked in separated settings, with separate norms and routines, can be challenging. Therefore, a fundamental dimension of effectiveness for RPPs is building the capacity of all involved to productively engage in partnership work. Collaborating to understand problems of practice, determine the focus of the partnership, and develop the ways that improvement efforts will be implemented can provide opportunities for growth on all sides of the RPP. When partnerships are effective in this regard, the RPP contributes to positive organizational change in both the practice and research settings, which lead to sustained participation, impact, and capacity-building.

What to consider when using the framework

The creation of the framework came out of a review of the existing literature, interviews with members of leading RPPs, and a collection of existing evaluation instruments and metrics, and is “intended to guide the development of more specific protocols and measures that could contribute to a body of evidence related to partnership effectiveness.”

Toward this end, the authors provide guidance on using the framework itself. They note, in particular, the importance of customizing the tool to a specific partnership’s theory of improvement that describes its intended improvement goals and the strategies it will use to pursue its agenda. Moreover, they caution researchers looking to build on this work to create more specific qualitative and quantitative measures for RPP assessment to consider necessary tradeoffs. For instance, researchers may need to choose between general or “boutique” tools for gauging a partnership’s progress on specific indicators, as well as decide whether quantitative or qualitative measures are more appropriate and feasible, particularly given the “purpose of and audience for the assessment.”


Given the complex challenges involved with improving the quality of students’ education, research that is focused on relevant questions of practice—designed, carried out, and used as part of sustained collaborations that bring together multiple perspectives and forms of expertise—can be especially powerful. However, as the authors write, “the development of feasible, solid, and reliable approaches for assessing and improving the effectiveness of RPPs is essential if that promise is to be realized.”

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.