School & District Management Opinion

Thriving Through Challenges: An Education Research-Practice Partnership’s Tale

By Urban Education Contributor — November 01, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by Stephanie Marek, Project Manager at Boston Public Schools (@BostonSchools), and Susan Bowles Therriault, Managing Researcher at American Institutes for Research (@Education_AIR).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: The Top Three Challenges Research-Practice Partnerships in Education Face, and How to Overcome Them

The Research-Practice Partnership (RPP) between Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) was established in 2015 to study the impact of expanded learning time on student outcomes. It didn’t take long for our new partnership to face one of the most common RPP challenges—turnover.

In the time between submitting our proposal and receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, nearly all BPS partnership members had left their roles and the district had a new superintendent. As the project took shape, turnover then ensued at AIR, requiring new research leads.

How did we survive? It started with a good plan, driven by compelling research questions, shared interest, and a continuous drive to attend to the health of the partnership. In Monday’s blog post, authors Melia Repko-Erwin and Mary Quantz write that trust, communication, and a shared vision make up a strong emergency care system for partnerships in critical condition as the result of turnover. This was certainly the case for the BPS-AIR partnership, which not only completed the two-year project (finding positive academic outcomes of longer school days for students), but is currently submitting proposals to formally continue the partnership.

Shared Vision: The First Response

RPPs typically begin long before a project’s official start date and ours is no exception. It sprung from a previous project wherein AIR evaluated a BPS federally funded grant. Partner teams quickly realized there were more questions and needs that research needed to support—and the idea for a more official partnership was born.

Together, the two organizations developed a plan that would become the ground rules for a partnership. The plan placed the common needs and research questions at the center of the effort, as well as a system for checking the health of the partnership at several points in the process. Finally, it included an advisory group representing key district constituencies (e.g., researchers, school principals, parents, etc.) to keep the partners focused. We didn’t know it then, but the strength of this plan would carry the partnership successfully through several obstacles—in other words, the plan was the first response system that kept the partnership alive.

During the first wave of turnover at the start of the project, the new BPS leadership team was occupied with rescue efforts of its own and commitment to the project seemed uncertain. Concerned that the project was no longer a BPS priority, AIR partnership members patiently and gently pushed forward. In the summer of 2015, Dr. Donna Muncey joined Boston Public Schools as Deputy Superintendent of Strategy and took on the project’s role as co-Principal Investigator. She was equipped with a strong research background, enthusiasm for the project, and the research proposal outlining the scope of the work and a clear management structure. AIR’s patience paid off, and this new enthusiasm quickly prioritized the work.

AIR Principal Investigator Dr. Kelly Hallberg and Project Director Erin Haynes used the established planning, governance, decision-making, use of research, and sustainability procedures heavily as the project stabilized. Additionally, a new major Mayoral initiative related to the project helped ensure the work’s relevance in a new administration.

Communication: Mending and Building

Early and consistent adoption of the defined partnership structure resulted in regular communication and a natural give-and-take between researchers and practitioners. Each entity could push the project’s goals forward, with BPS advocating for a research structure that was authentic to school contexts and AIR advocating for rigor. Because the partnership shared a common vision, these tensions were not seen as prohibitive, but as regular exercises that would strengthen the overall project and partnership.

In Monday’s blog post, Repko-Erwin and Quant emphasize the importance of communication across multiple levels of an organization. Because the BPS/AIR team structures required members of various levels, higher-level team members strengthened the sustainability of the partnership, while project tasks and decisions could be delegated to non-leadership members in order to reduce bottlenecks. Non-leadership members communicated more regularly, allowing approval for larger decisions to be made in full partnership meetings or separately within each entity.

Trust: Post-Recovery

Because of the strong foundation built in year one of the project, research was able to continue with minimal disruption. AIR built trust as researcher by conducting a robust analysis that took district context into account wherever possible, regarding data security as a top priority, and employing full transparency regarding research decisions. BPS built trust as practitioner by understanding research methodology in order to provide context, producing data in a timely fashion, and promoting research dissemination and action within the community.

In the project’s second year, turnover occurred on the research side of the partnership. Dr. Susan Therriault became the project’s Principal Investigator and Alex Kistner, a member of the year one team, assumed the role of Project Director. While maintaining trust through this change was a concern, the project’s structures and the resulting communication patterns served as check-ins on the health of the partnership. Open space for discussion provided a venue for mitigating potential challenges early. Additionally, BPS and AIR continued to prioritize the partnership—and thus were willing to nurture it through plans that engaged departed members in an advisory role, or through carefully developed and mutually agreed upon transition plans.

The result of the partnership was a study that demonstrated evidence that a longer school day in Boston Public Schools was having a positive academic impact on its students. Once the study was completed, BPS and AIR worked together to develop communications materials to engage multiple stakeholders and a dissemination plan that gave BPS time to release the findings in a way that maximized stakeholder engagement. After two years of turnover, the partnership is now brainstorming additional research questions and pursuing awards for a new project. Knowing that we are not immune to additional turnover and other challenges, we are confident that shared vision, open and regular communication, and trust built over time will allow us not only to survive, but make our partnership stronger.

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