School & District Management Opinion

Trust Keeps Our School-Research Relationship Alive in the Pandemic

How educators and researchers nudged forward a plan for equity
By Katherine Mortimer & Scott Gray — January 18, 2022 3 min read
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The success of our partnership—the Sol y Agua Research-Practice Partnership for Computer Science Education—between the El Paso Independent school district and the University of Texas at El Paso might well be defined by the fact that we have managed to move forward during the pandemic. Aimed at greater equity in computer science education, specifically for Latinx students, girls, and English-learners, our work to collaboratively develop and pilot middle school computer science curriculum that is bilingual and culturally responsive felt urgent until schools closed; until teachers worried about their missing students; until learning loss and testing pressures intensified; until substitute shortages and staffing changes shuffled plans; until team members fell ill and lost loved ones. And then, it wasn’t urgent at all.

In a traditional researcher-driven arrangement, it would have been most appropriate to stop the work. But, in fact, the relationships of trust that are the core of our partnership nudged the work forward, both because we could have candid conversations about what was manageable and because the work of curricular innovation in a group of smart, caring, creative people has nourished us all during trying times.

It is this ongoing work of building trusting relationships that has enabled our successes so far, and the following are a few specific things that have made trust-building possible.

  • An early team-building retreat. At a National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop conducted by research-practice-partnership experts at the Research + Practice Collaboratory, we were introduced to the extensive RPP network and given space and time to do the essential relational work of getting to know each other and identifying our goals and priorities. Those goals have since served as our north star, even as contexts and conditions changed.
It is this ongoing work of building trusting relationships that has enabled our successes so far.

  • Assembling our team to include people with different institutional roles and deep knowledge of our focal student communities. Our team includes six middle school teachers, two principals, two instructional facilitators, one district administrator (Gray), one education researcher (Mortimer), one computer science researcher, and four university-student research assistants. This diversity of roles has meant that, as a whole, we’ve been able to mobilize resources from different levels of authority and had people to shepherd the work within and across different institutions, buildings, disciplines, systems. Most of our team members identify as Latina/o and bilingual, mirroring our focal student groups, and have long-term experience in the school communities.
  • Using discussion protocols to structure our interaction. As part of the integration of project-based learning in the El Paso schools, our district members had been using structured conversations, including procedural steps or guidelines, in teacher professional development and in classrooms to make discussions more productive and inclusive of more voices. Using these protocols in our partnership conversations helped us build trust by ensuring that no one person or institutional perspective dominated and by shaping our team culture around practices already in use by our district members. The conversations among us created a space for a type of accountability that felt organic.

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  • Broad-based decisionmaking creating buy-in. To the greatest extent possible, we make decisions together, we co-design the curriculum, we co-plan the piloting and the data collection. We will also look at data together and co-refine the curriculum. This has given us all a sense of ownership. We have explicitly discussed how the roles of learner and expert shift around depending on the question at hand.
  • Marshaling institutional and financial supports. Truly collaborative and equitable work takes time, money, and institutional support. Providing substitute coverage and paying teachers for their time has been essential in opening space in already heavy workloads. NSF grant funds have made this possible, as has support from our respective institutions in the forms of autonomy and flexibility. We aim in the future to be able to buy time for every team member and to shape our respective evaluation systems to recognize this work.

While our research goals of and collective commitment to more equitable computer science education have fundamentally oriented our work, it is our relationships to each other that have kept us moving through uncertain waters.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Develop Trust


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