School & District Management Opinion

What’s Next for Research-Practice Partnerships?

By Urban Education Contributor — August 06, 2018 5 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, the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP; @RPP_Network) shares key takeaways from a recent annual gathering of NNERPP members and friends.

Stay tuned: Thursday we will dive deeper into RPP theories of action.

What happens when you put 100+ people who are passionate about improving education in the same space for three days?

At the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships — a professional learning community developing, supporting, and connecting research-practice partnerships (RPPs) to improve the relationships between education research, policy, and practice — this has become a yearly experiment, and the experience never ceases to amaze us.

The NNERPP Annual Forum (sometimes referred to as “RPP Bootcamp”), is a yearly national gathering of our members, as well as foundations, research institutions, policy and advocacy groups, and non-profit agencies. As we shared in our post about last year’s convening, this annual gathering allows us to dive deep into central issues of research-practice partnership work, providing a unique space for collaborative learning and professional development on a large scale.

This year’s meeting took place in Portland, Oregon, and was hosted in association with Education Northwest. With close to 120 participants representing 28 RPPs and other relevant groups from across the country, we examined various important aspects of this year’s theme: “Partnering for Change: How do RPPs increase the use of research evidence in policy and practice?”

It was a highly productive and deeply inspiring learning experience: Participants passionately discussed pressing problems and questions of the field and generously contributed their unique expertise. With an invaluable exchange of knowledge and new idea generation, the meeting (once again!) demonstrated the power of gathering together as a learning community as we seek to improve education together.

Here, we share five key takeaways that emerged over the course of the gathering.

  1. Theories of action matter — as does the organizational context. We started paying greater attention to partnerships’ theories of action at least year’s Annual Forum, recognizing their important role in guiding the work. Since then, our thinking has evolved further, and this year, we dedicated two sessions to the topic. First, we invited partnerships to explore the organizational context of the practice-side partner and encouraged them to work together to identify strategies to better support research use. We additionally asked partnerships to bring their current theories of action and facilitated a peer-to-peer exchange of these illustrations to push our thinking on what these can look like. In Thursday’s post, we’ll provide a deeper look into where our thinking is regarding RPPs and theories of action given their emerging importance.

  1. “Give me the research findings seven different ways.” Engaging a variety of audiences with research findings is imperative to increasing the use of research in policy and practice. In our reflections on last year’s forum, one of our main takeaways was the importance of recognizing the variety of stakeholders that may need to know about the research and the need to tailor messages to these specific audiences. During this year’s convening, we were once again reminded of the wide range of people RPPs seek to reach, and their wide range of backgrounds, roles, responsibilities, training, and ways of interpreting findings. As one district leader put it: “Give me the research findings seven different ways.”

  1. We all want to measure the effectiveness of our work — but then what? Assessing the effectiveness of RPPs is an important next step for many in the field. First attempts at imaging what that could look like have emerged, and at NNERPP, we’ve organized a subnetwork to lead our efforts in this space. Conversations at the Forum this year generated a new line of thinking while measures for assessment are being developed: What will we do once we’ve measured effectiveness? Yes, we need to be able to assess our effectiveness, but, importantly, we also need the tools to react to the insights and findings such assessment would give us. This requires an agile culture of self-assessment and continuous learning to be in place now, so that once a partnership does have more concrete results about its effectiveness, it is ready to respond accordingly.

  1. “So... what’s my job?” Research-practice partnerships, by design, blur the lines between what a “researcher” is and does, and what a “practitioner” is and does, requiring cultural and work-related shifts on the part of both researchers and practitioners engaging in this work. We’ve come a long way in expanding the boundaries of the different roles in RPPs, and perhaps consequently, this year we heard new questions on just where do these boundaries end. For example: “What’s not in my job description? What shouldn’t be in my job description?” were a few questions we heard from participants. Figuring out who leads what is certainly one of the challenges when embarking on this type of work.

  1. Speaking of roles: There are more than two, but what are they? We’ve also learned that clearly, differentiating between only two broad roles (researchers and practitioners) within RPPs is no longer sufficient. If you are a researcher working within a school district, are you a practitioner by virtue of sitting at the district office, or are you —well— a researcher? (See this blog post by one of our NNERPP members for a much more refined reflection on this particular dilemma). NNERPP’s thinking about roles has evolved dramatically: At our first annual convening in 2016, our “role-alike” huddles involved exactly two groups (yep: researchers and practitioners); this year, we identified five different groups, including brokers, influencers, community liaisons, implementation specialists, and RPP designers. While these roles and RPP dimensions capture the complexities of this work much better, we are still navigating the identities and responsibilities associated with each.

We started this post by asking: What happens when you put 100+ people who are passionate about improving education in the same space for three days? Well, as you can see in our takeaways above, a lot of thinking and learning takes place — but the more we learn, the more new challenges and questions emerge also. At NNERPP, we are excited to tackle them with our learning community of RPPs, and to see where we are with these by the time we all meet again for our national convening next year.

Curious about other topics partnerships 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.