Research Collaborations Not Seen as Two-Way

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 15, 2011 5 min read
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Partnerships between researchers and school districts have become a top priority for federal education research efforts, from the National Science Foundation to the Institute of Education Sciences, yet scientists and teachers argue the current system doesn’t provide much incentive for practitioners to collaborate.

“That is really a major problem,” said Barbara Means, the co-director of SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning, in Menlo Park, Calif. “If we want to follow through on what [President Barack Obama] has said—that we want to change our education system to support innovation—we have to find room in that system for education systems to become self-learning.”

Federal agencies and private research groups alike increasingly require district collaboration for their grant competitions, said Suzanne Donovan, the executive director of the Washington-based Strategic Education Research Partnership institute, or SERP, an initiative begun by the National Academies to foster research partnerships in education.

“The problem is they generate partnerships of convenience,” Ms. Donovan said, in which researchers and districts come together to win grant money without creating support, in the form of time, money, training, and regular discussions. “That’s a poor substitute,” she said, “for an ongoing relationship that shapes the research questions.”

Without taking practitioners’ needs into account, research partnerships can backfire. “If the superintendent has said this is what you want to have happen, and your schools aren’t on board, there are a hundred ways that what you intend to have happen can get undermined,” Ms. Donovan said.

John Q. Easton, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the research agency within the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledged the problem last fall in a lecture at Duke University, in Durham, N.C.

‘Not Easy’

“Schools are overwhelmed with daily demands; it is simply not fair to expect school leaders to turn over their teachers, their kids, their data without expecting something tangible in return,” he said in the speech. “I know from experience that creating these kinds of partnerships is not easy, … but they are our best shot at producing research that can lead to lasting, meaningful improvement in schools.”

Mr. Easton told Education Week that the new round of IES research competitions, which were announced last week, would show “much greater emphasis” on encouraging close partnerships between researchers and practitioners, but he said there would be no specific rules for infrastructure to support collaboration.

“I’m trying to see where’s the balance of the role,” Mr. Easton said. “You obviously don’t want to add burdens to people, but you want to make sure you are soliciting their best advice. Researchers and practitioners have different skill sets, and they both need each other ”

Javier R. Movellan, a co-principal investigator at the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, found that out firsthand during the lab’s RUBI Project to develop a robot to interact with and tutor young children.

Since 2004, Mr. Movellan’s team has set up shop in the neighboring early-childhood-education center, filming students, tweaking robotics, and quizzing teachers, parents, and children. Teachers regularly alerted the team to problems in the project and helped the researchers translate laboratory work into the classroom setting.When announcing his results last month at a research conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, Mr. Movellan recalled that administrative road blocks made it difficult to pay the teachers stipends or carve out time for them to work with the team. “We were really just relying on their volunteerism; there were no incentives for them professionally to do what they were doing with us,” he said.

Suspicious at First

At the same time, Mr. Movellan said, teachers’ prior experiences with researchers and changing research trends often made them suspicious of scholars’ intentions.

“We found, often enough for us to be concerned, that teachers were being—indoctrinated may be too strong a word—but they are told [what] you should do or shouldn’t do” based on purported research,even if it went against the teachers’ experience and training.

The structure of many studies, in which researchers visit a school for brief observations and focus groups, can increase practitioners’ disconnect, said Buffy J. Cushman-Patz, a middle school math and high school science teacher in Honolulu, who is now on loan to the National Science Foundation as an Albert Einstein distinguished-educator fellow.

“It seems like the education research is initiated from the researchers, but we as teachers and principals and people closer to the ground have different needs, different questions, different things we’d like to see supported by the research,” she said. “If you’re going to ask teachers to do something that is outside their already-overwhelming workload, you need to provide an incentive.

“For the most part, people are willing to do things if they understand the reason why and understand how it might eventually help them.”

Ms. Cushman-Patz and Mr. Movellan both called for more structured financial and professional development incentives for teachers and administrators who work with researchers.

For each district with which it partners, SERP creates supports for practitioners at the district, school, and classroom levels and allows them to decide on the problems to be studied. Ms. Donovan said the ongoing conversations between the practitioners and the scientists have proved to be critical.

“We have stipends of a couple thousand dollars. What we’ve found is the teachers value most the opportunity to have the intellectual community and the opportunity to learn,” she said. “There are just lots of teachers out there who have a real, genuine intellectual interest and too little opportunity to explore the ideas of teaching with other people.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Research Collaborations Not Seen as Two-Way


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