School & District Management Opinion

What Can Research-Practice Partnerships Learn From Each Other?

By Urban Education Contributor — August 21, 2017 4 min read
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This week we are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to reflect on some important concepts relevant to research-practice partnerships. In today’s post, Paula Arce-Trigatti, Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP; @RPP_Network) and Nina Spitzley, Program Administrator of NNERPP, share key takeaways from a recent annual gathering of NNERPP members and friends.

What are the different approaches to doing research-practice partnership work and how are they different? What are the most pressing problems school district and state department leaders face every day and how can research really help address these? How do we know if our RPP work is effective and how do we continuously improve—and get better at getting better?

These were some of the questions we asked, studied, discussed, and started to answer at the 2017 NNERPP Annual Forum held three weeks ago in Nashville, Tennessee. This annual gathering of our members (many of whom are featured in this blog!) as well as representatives from relevant policy, advocacy, and philanthropic groups is one of the key activities NNERPP engages in.

In support of NNERPP’s mission—to develop, support, and connect RPPs to improve the relationships between research, policy, and practice—we are creating a professional learning community among these partnerships to develop and share best partnership practices, help facilitate cross-partnership collaboration, synthesize research findings, and ultimately improve how research is used to inform pressing problems of practice. By bringing together researchers and practitioners as well as other education leaders from across the country to dive deep into central issues of research-practice partnership work, the Annual Forum provides a unique space for collaborative learning on a large scale.

This year’s meeting was hosted in association with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and took place over the course of three days. We had 22 research-practice partnerships from across the nation represented and over 100 participants join us. The diversity in expertise representing many different sectors of education made for a very rich experience that was filled with a multitude of learning opportunities.

While collaboration and learning from each other are essential within any single research-practice partnership, we have found that collaborative learning across partnerships is just as important. Partnerships can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes, avoid duplication of efforts, combine resources and expertise in joint projects, and generate new ideas together — if provided the opportunity to sit in the same room and share challenges, thoughts, and projects.

As hoped, putting our terrific group of participants in the same space for three days resulted in invaluable insights pertinent to research-practice partnership work. Below we share a sampling of the major takeaways from this year’s meeting.

There isn’t one “right way” to do partnership work. There is no best, one-size-fits-all approach to doing RPP work. While all of our members share the core characteristics that define research-practice partnerships, operationally, they all look a little different.

Allow the problem of practice to dictate the type of partnership you’d like to set up. By adhering to “form follows function” rather than forcing a pre-specified structure on the partnership, your RPP will be better equipped to take advantage of the many benefits to doing partnership work.

Be clear about the values and theory of action that will guide your work, preferably before launching the partnership. While every partnership’s theory of action will be unique, this exercise will go a long way in helping your RPP identify the relationship between key inputs or resources and the activities necessary to support the desired products or outcomes that will come from the partnership.

Think early on about how projects will be related to the outcomes the RPP is interested in impacting. It is not uncommon to conduct individual studies on an “as needed” basis, only to patchwork findings after the fact. Participants noted the importance of being intentional about the early steps in the research process, especially as they relate to the needs of your practice-side partner.

Be aware that your audience can change depending on the study—and be ready to change the materials the partnership puts forth in response. For example, resources and materials that are shared with district leaders will look different than what is shared with teachers; state education leaders and policymakers will require another set of materials altogether.

Speaking of audience, make sure you have the right people at the table. First, it is imperative to have a “champion” that will help shepherd the work, especially on the practice-side of the partnership. Second, if you really want to impact policy, then you need to ensure that key members of the leadership, whether it be a commissioner of education, a superintendent, a principal, and so on, are integrated into the RPP.

As may be clear from these takeaways, a central goal of research-practice partnerships is to increase the use of research evidence in practice. On Thursday, we’ll take a closer look at the many faces of research use (did you know there was more than one?).

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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.