School & District Management

Research Alliances Link Scholars and Educators

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 18, 2012 5 min read
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Long-term partnerships, rather than one-off studies, may become the new norm for researchers looking for access and districts looking for answers.

A forthcoming study commissioned by the William T. Grant Foundation, of New York City, finds more districts are developing long-term, structured relationships with researchers. It says the trend is driven by tight local budgets and an increased federal focus on making education research usable.

The study highlights potential bridges between researchers frustrated with low use of their studies by practitioners and district officials who are wary of researchers’ use of their data.

Those tensions were evident in 2007, when Vanderbilt University researchers approached the 83,000-student Fort Worth, Texas, district with a research proposal. It took a long time to build trust.

The district needed the help; it was trying to implement a new middle school mathematics curriculum two years after the district had undergone big major budget cuts, said Michael Sorum, Forth Worth’s deputy superintendent for leadership, learning, and student support.

“Our curriculum department was basically gutted,” he recalled.

Research Alliances

Alliances between researchers and education practitioners are becoming increasingly common in urban districts nationwide. Among them are:

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
After the city’s schools were restructured in 1990 into decentralized governing zones, researchers from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, the Chicago school district, the city’s Urban League and Community Trust, and local and national foundations collaborated to support longitudinal study of the schools. The pioneering consortium focuses on Chicago, but its findings have had national application and it is considered a gold standard for research alliances.

Research Alliance for New York City Schools
Launched in 2008, this collaboration involves researchers from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development who provide ongoing longitudinal and evaluation research for the New York public schools and help the school system translate research findings into instructional practice.

Los Angeles Education Research Institute
Launched in 2011 by the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers Meredith Phillips and Kyo Yamashiro, the institute has spent its first year building an alliance with Los Angeles public schools to share student achievement data and develop best-practices research.

Baltimore Education Research Consortium
In 2006, researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and the Baltimore public schools created a network with community nonprofit groups, in part to study and address the city’s high drop-out rate.

Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium
A multidisciplinary team of education researchers from four major local universities—Kansas State University, the University of Missouri in Columbia, the University of Missouri–Kansas City, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence—study student achievement and school improvement in several school districts around the Kansas City metropolitan area.

San Diego Education Research Alliance
The school district and the University of California, San Diego’s economics department established the alliance in May 2010 to collect longitudinal data and evaluate school policies.

Texas Consortium for School Research
Launched in 2009, this group focuses on research to improve college and career readiness in Texas schools. It includes the Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest at Edvance Research Inc., the University of Texas at Dallas Education Research Center, and more than 30 school districts and charter schools across the state. The Chicago Consortium also partners with these Texas researchers.

The district was already being “bombarded” by researchers wanting to conduct studies in its schools, he said. Most of them shaped their proposals around particular grants, whether or not the planned research really addressed the district’s problems, according to Mr. Sorum.

Moreover, many of the proposed studies would have required data collection and other work from the district’s teachers, but would not provide any feedback for months or years.

“I had a lot of experience of interacting with external organizations who were working with the district,” Mr. Sorum said. “I was left with the taste in my mouth of being seen as an object by a certain number of researchers.”

Relevance Needed

Vivien Tseng, a vice president for programs at the Grant Foundation, said that sort of disconnect is common.

“When researchers talk about implementation, they are talking dosage and fidelity,” Ms. Tseng said during a Sept. 7 symposium on the study at the fall conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, held here. “When practitioners talk about implementation, they are talking about how it fits into existing programs, policies, and practices.”

A decade ago, in the early days of the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, federal policymakers focused on improving the overall quality of education research, most famously with the research agency’s emphasis on using randomized, controlled trials as a primary study design. The assumption, according to William R. Penuel, a study co-author and an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was that educators did not act on most education research because it wasn’t accurate.

But as the number of experimental-design studies rose, he said, policymakers found “there’s a problem of relevance here, too. The reason we hear practitioners aren’t using research is because they say it’s not really relevant to the problems they face in the field.”

Effective partnerships change the way districts and researchers cooperate, Mr. Penuel found. Rather than a researcher approaching administrators to conduct a study, or administrators contracting with a researcher to evaluate a specific program, successful alliances are structured from the beginning to be long-term relationships focused on problems of practice. Both sides work on mutually beneficial studies so that neither side feels “used” by the research.

Evolving Relationship

“They’re not just repackaging student-achievement data, but doing original analysis that adds value to what the practitioners can learn on their own about how they are doing,” Mr. Penuel said.

That’s what Mr. Sorum of Fort Worth found. The district agreed—somewhat warily, he said—to join Vanderbilt’s Middle School Math and the Instructional Setting of Teaching project, or MIST, a “design-research partnership.”

Before coming to the district, researchers from Vanderbilt, located in Nashville, Tenn., studied Fort Worth’s achievement data, demographics, and staffing; they recognized the district’s black-white achievement gap and problems with teacher professional development.

But rather than simply propose solutions, Mr. Sorum said, the researchers were able to help teachers and administrators “articulate and think about our own work” and come up with suggestions for the most useful curriculum strategies.

“At the end of that first year, as we got our first findings, my eyes really began to open,” Mr. Sorum said.

Through the MIST partnership, Fort Worth not only launched its new math curriculum, but also integrated it into science and literacy instruction, he said.

Such design partnerships are one of three emerging models identified by the Grant Foundation study. As part of the model, both researchers and teachers work to design, test, evaluate, and revise a curriculum or intervention in a local context.

In another partnership model, districts, particularly in rural areas, may also create “improvement communities,” providing a larger study sample for researchers while being able to quickly test and share best practices among schools with similar demographics or problems.

Those partnerships focus on quick, intensive cycles of research testing and tweaking, which can produce answers to instructional questions in a matter of months rather than years.

In the third model, a permanent research alliance often develops around a particular community, rather than focusing on a given education topic, and it may pull in partners from other government agencies and community nonprofits as well as the school district.

This partnership model has become one of the most common, thanks to the success of the long-running Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has inspired similar partnerships in New York City, San Diego, and Houston.

Adina Lopatin, the deputy chief academic officer for the New York public schools, said the four-year-old Research Alliance for New York City Schools has helped city leaders understand the changing school landscape and community effects of major school improvement efforts, such as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s push to break low-performing schools into small schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Scholars and Educators Team Up for the Long Haul

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