School & District Management Opinion

How can Research-Practice Partnerships Support the Use of Education Research?

By Urban Education Contributor — June 14, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by Paula Arce-Trigatti, Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (@RPP_Network).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: What Research Do Educators Actually Find Useful?

You’ve likely heard the saying “practice what you preach” — here at the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP), we are trying to do just that.

To wit: One of NNERPP’s objectives is to “develop and share best partnership practices.” I often say, “what does ‘best practice’ even mean?” Although it’s tempting (and easier), spreading the “well, this worked for Research-Practice Partnership X, and they’ve been around forever, so therefore, let’s do it that way” kind of guidance is just not enough. It’s definitely a start, but it leaves a key question unanswered: Why did it work for them?

I imagine this is how those on the practice-side of education sometimes feel when no relevant, context-specific research is available to them: “well, [insert amazing district name here] did it this way, and they are awesome, so therefore, let’s do it that way too.” It might be tempting (and easier) to spread that guidance, but at the end of the day, you’ll still wonder why it worked for “Amazing District Name.” (Moreover, you’ll especially wonder why it worked for them when it just so happens that “it” doesn’t work for you).

Back to practicing what you preach: Many of the research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in NNERPP are keenly interested in supporting research use in practice (e.g., turning scenario two above into something more like “in addition to ‘Amazing District Name’ doing it this way, research shows that these specific conditions lead to the outcome we are trying to achieve...”). As a national network of RPPs, we, in turn, are also keenly interested in supporting this endeavor. And to fully align ourselves with this goal, we are also looking to research to help us determine what qualifies as a “best practice.”

The research shared in Monday’s post is just one example of the kinds of studies NNERPP is particularly excited to read. Here I share two ways in which NNERPP will be using the research you read about earlier this week.

Books > peer-reviewed articles...really??

The finding from Caitlin and colleagues’ work that peer-reviewed articles are not viewed as especially useful to district leaders was not entirely surprising. (This is indeed one reason some academic researchers end up in RPPs — it allows them the opportunity to produce research that has a greater chance of being used by those in practice).

What was surprising, however, was the finding about books being a popular form of research that district leaders found useful. Books, you say? A form of communication that is much longer than a 10 page brief, more involved than a 1-pager filled with bullet points, and contains more words than a sharply produced infographic ever will? In short, an example of the type of product RPPs typically run away from? We’ve been so accustomed to hearing about the severe lack of time district leaders typically face that this one caught me by surprise.

But if I had thought about the many faces of research use, perhaps it wouldn’t have (it’s hard to break old habits). If we are thinking about the linear model of research use, the one where district leaders need to make a specific decision and thus consult research, then books are surprising. But if we think about conceptual uses of research, a perhaps even more important form of research use we are constantly overlooking, then books make complete sense. Given their more conceptual, high level approach to relaying information relative to a single peer-reviewed article, books have the space to give the reader context, examples, a narrative they can hold on to, and so on.

Does this mean that we’ll start recommending to RPPs to get into the book business? Probably not. But what I do think this means for the RPP field is that literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conversations around concepts (versus findings) should likely form part of your RPP arsenal.

Reminder: There are multiple uses of research

The second take-home message from Monday’s piece that stuck with me is the multiple ways district leaders in their study used the research (i.e., not just to inform their decision making on a program or strategy).

As Caitlin rightly points out in her post, there has been a rather narrow view of what constitutes research use, at least historically. Their study finds, however, that many district leaders used research to support professional learning, provide instructional leadership to others, and to design district-wide strategies and programs. While this could be related to the role taken on by district leaders in their sample (e.g., curriculum and instruction folks versus research and evaluation folks), it nonetheless highlights the importance of recognizing that research use can take multiple forms.

What does this mean for RPPs? Because the support of research use is commonly a basic building block of partnership activities, I think this finding will be most relevant when developing a partnership theory of action (that is, the guiding framework that relates how the activities, products, people, and processes will lead to intended partnership outcomes).

In particular, it will be imperative to rely on a more nuanced understanding of what “research use” means. For example, if one of the partnership’s goals is to improve research use in practice, then there should be a lot of thought into how the partnership can support instrumental use, conceptual use, process use, etc. Indeed, rather than trying to make research useful in only one way (e.g., to assess whether or not to implement a program), the partnership might look for ways to inject a dose of research in a district leader’s daily routine.

In Conclusion

As the RPP field continues to evolve, grow, and gain ground as a promising way to support the use of education research in practice, research such as the piece shared on Monday and discussed here is essential. Only by understanding the realities of research use in practice can RPPs effectively support and promote such use and NNERPP develop the supports (and best practices!) to assist RPPs in this mission.

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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.