School & District Management Opinion

What Happens When Educators and Researchers Work Together in Partnerships?

By Urban Education Contributor — July 09, 2018 7 min read
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This week we kick off a three-part series on new research from the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice about the inner workings, impacts, challenges, and successes of research-practice partnerships in education. Parts 2 and 3 will be shared in early and late fall.

This post is by Kristen Davidson (@_kdavidson), Research Associate for the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (@NCRPP).

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will provide the practitioner perspective on this research.

As the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP) exemplifies, there is a growing movement for research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in education. Many hope that RPPs will bring research and practice closer together, and in so doing, increase the use of research in the field.

A report released this week by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) summarizes findings of a two-year, survey and interview study on 27 RPPs nationwide that were funded by the Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships in Education Research program. Among other findings, the report shares insights into a key question about RPPs: In what ways did educators and researchers shift their engagement with research by participating in an RPP?

What Happened to Educators and Researchers When They Engaged in Partnerships Together?

Rather than being a strategy to foster a one-way path from research to practice, our findings suggest that RPPs fostered engagement with research that was multi-directional, affecting educators, researchers, and other stakeholders connected to them.

Both education leaders and researchers reported shifts in three key areas: their orientation toward research, their knowledge and skills about the research process, and their communication practices with stakeholders. Not only did education leaders and researchers report these changes about themselves, but participants on the “other side” of their partnerships also reported seeing these changes in their research or practice partners.

1) Educators and Researchers Deepened Their Appreciation of Each Other’s Work

Education leaders described a change in their orientation toward using and participating in research. They explained that their participation in an RPP had improved their understanding of the value of research to shed light on problems of practice and make evidence-informed decisions in their organization. As one district leader shared, “For me, it definitely has reinforced the value of research, because we wouldn’t be aware of the successes or the challenges or even the capacity to roll something out to scale like this without the information from our partnership.”

It was not only the educators who participated in the RPPs who changed their orientation toward research—their colleagues likewise came to view research and researchers as reliable sources of information. One leader told us that an increased awareness about research had “elevated the importance of accurate data for us and for our local programs.” Throughout her organization, she said, “It’s natural now to say, ‘Well, what does the research say?’”

Researchers noted ways in which their orientation toward working with educators had shifted. By spending time in educational settings, researchers gained better understandings of the policy contexts and organizational conditions that shape education leaders’ work. Researchers then were able to adapt their research aims and methods to accommodate their practice partners’ needs and to produce timely, actionable findings.

Importantly, researchers in partnerships considered their practice partners’ input in determining the aims of a research project—a shift away from “traditional” approaches of entering an educational setting to conduct a study without educator input. Instead, researchers asked questions and learned from education leaders’ expertise.

2) Educators and Researchers Developed Their Knowledge and Skills to Conduct Research Together

Education leaders and researchers alike described developing new technical skills to use and conduct research. For educators, these skills related to collecting, managing, analyzing, and interpreting data. For researchers, these skills involved working with new data systems and developing data sharing agreements with educational organizations. They came to appreciate issues of data quality to which their practice partners were already highly sensitized.

As education leaders gained research experience, they became more critical consumers of research. Researchers noticed that their practice partners began to better evaluate the quality of research studies and their findings, and turn to more reliable sources of evidence to inform their practice.

Through participation in the research process, education leaders gained a better understanding of their focal problems of practice. They in turn began to feel a sense of ownership in the research and ask critical questions. One leader emphasized, “My going out and gathering the data gave me that vested interest in it. You have buy-in. You have ownership.”

In response to their practice partners’ needs and contexts, researchers shifted their research methods. For example, some noted a shift to integrating qualitative research methods so that educators could “understand the mechanisms underlying why things are happening.”

Together with their practice partners, researchers learned how to develop more timely and relevant findings. Some researchers noted that this shift was challenging, as they had to become comfortable with “quick and dirty” analyses that required them to carefully communicate limitations and nuances to stakeholders.

Sharing findings, however, was not the end of the partnership’s collaboration, as researchers continued to work with their partners in the implementation of research findings. As one researcher explained, “It’s an entirely different frame than most research that I’ve done. ... I think, most of the time, we have our research questions, and we go in, and we answer them, and then we leave.”

Instead, these RPPs began with the joint development of research questions, continued through the study itself, and persisted through the application of findings to the design of policies and programs.

3) Educators and Researchers Expanded Their Communication with Stakeholders About Research

Both education leaders and researchers explained how their communication with stakeholders about research had expanded due to working in their RPPs.

The research skills that educators gained helped them to interpret and communicate complex research findings to various stakeholders, just as researchers learned to shift from academic to “friendlier” language focused on actionable findings. Here, it was important for research and practice partners to work together to ensure both accurate and accessible information about the research. Partnerships communicated about their research through multiple venues and platforms, including short briefs, research articles, conference presentations, online videos, social media, and more.

Impacts of Partnerships Beyond Educators’ and Researchers’ Engagement with Research

Educators and researchers alike reported highly positive experiences in their RPPs. Almost all said they would participate in a partnership again, they had developed new skills from working in a partnership, and they felt confident they could lead one in the future. Three-quarters of educators reported that they had become better at using research to inform their work and were more likely to do so in the future. Similarly, researchers reported that they had become better at conducting research that meets the needs of educators.

Not only did working in RPPs change education leaders and researchers, but their work also impacted their colleagues and other stakeholders. As educators took up research practices and applied findings, their colleagues became more open to using ideas and findings from research in their own work. Researchers developed relationships with educators both within and outside of the partnerships as they learned about the organization, engaged as thought partners, and stayed through the implementation of findings.

Perhaps most importantly, the relationships that education leaders and researchers built through their partnerships allowed them to leverage their different types of expertise and experiences in order to better understand their focal problems and to co-develop solutions, thus addressing some of education’s most pressing problems—together.

Previous blog posts by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice:

Curious about other research topics partnerships and guest bloggers have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

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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.