By NCRPP’s Christopher Harrison and guest bloggers, Lora Cohen-Vogel, Brad Fatout, and Dan Traeger
The last several years have seen a push towards the development of research-practice partnerships as a means for leveraging both the wisdom of practice and the insights of research in tackling persistent problems in education. Here, we reflect upon our work with the National Center for Scaling up Effective Schools (NCSU), a five-year partnership between researchers, the Education Development Center, and educators in two urban districts. This post reflects the perspectives of both researchers and practitioners engaged in our shared work.
The NCSU’s Process of Improvement
At the core of NCSU’s work is an innovative, collaborative process that brings to scale practices that have been shown to improve student achievement in high schools in Broward County, Florida and Fort Worth, Texas. We begin with findings from intensive research in our partner districts. These findings serve as the foundation of a design challenge for our teams of practitioners who, alongside researchers and developers, leverage the NCSU’s research to co-develop a framework of high-leverage practices that we term a “prototype” innovation. In Broward County, for example, we developed a prototype — that is, a bundle of new routines, instructional initiatives, and recommended norms - to support personalization of students’ academic and social learning. These prototypes are then refined and adapted to a few initial innovation schools by teams of practitioners through rapid-cycle Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) testing. The refined innovation that emerges from this process is eventually scaled upward within the initial school contexts and outward to new schools over time.
The Center’s model of improvement relies on three core principles:
Innovations will reflect the core elements of programs or practices that have been shown to be effective in the district in which the improvement work is occurring;
Rapid-cycle testing will be used to allow the prototype to be revised in ways that adapt it to different school contexts; and
Authentic partnerships will be employed that strive to both take advantage of and build local ownership and expertise so that changes in practice can be brought to scale with depth and sustainability.
Here, we focus on the first principle: grounding prototype development in findings from empirical research conducted within our partner districts. We argue that ensuring our process was firmly grounded in our districts’ successes has yielded a number of benefits for our shared work. These include: highlighting practices that ensured standing among our practitioner partners, safeguarding relevance and fit with state and district policy, leveraging the wisdom of practice, and building legitimacy and trust of researchers.
Ensuring Standing for Practitioners
By building from effective practices in the district, our findings emphasized programs and policies that were familiar to many of our practitioner partners. In some cases, the practices highlighted by the NCSU’s in-depth case studies already existed in some of our design team members’ schools. This gave those members standing within the team, as they described details of the practices that they themselves were implementing. It also provided the message that “something is going right in our district,” a message often missing in improvement efforts that “drop solutions in from above.”
Safeguarding Relevance and Fit
Grounding the prototype in local successes further helped the Center make the case to district leaders that any prototype designed by the partnership would be relevant and aligned with their strategic vision. Later, it eased the testing and implementation of the prototype by ensuring that the practices emphasized by our research fit within the tapestry of competing initiatives, priorities, and mandates under which our partner schools operate.
Leveraging the Wisdom of Practice
Grounding prototype development in findings from empirical research conducted within our partner districts also helped ensure that the NCSU leveraged the wisdom of our practitioner partners from the start. This situated our work well within current thinking regarding implementation and scale – moving our partnership away from simple consideration of “what works,” towards deeper consideration of “what works, for whom, and under what conditions?” Drawing our findings from local settings helped practitioner members of our design teams to more quickly bridge the gap between “what should be” and “what can be.”
Building Legitimacy and Trust of Researchers
Finally, the fact that NCSU researchers spent substantial time in our partner districts’ high schools imbued them with legitimacy as they collaborated with practitioners in later phases of the work. Indeed, the design teams were arguably more easily built because researchers were able to speak knowingly and with depth about programs and policies in high schools throughout the district. Rather than being seen as external actors imposing their own research agenda, researchers gradually gained the trust of practitioners and were seen as partners, pursuing shared goals and joint interests. This trust facilitated researchers’ continued involvement and helped ease their access to schools as the prototype was tested and scaled to new sites.
Continuing the Conversation
Together, these benefits suggest a new approach to educational improvement – one that moves away from the tradition of bringing solutions in from the outside toward a process that iterates and improves upon practices that were already there in the first place.
We’ll be talking about this, and other relevant strategies in the days ahead. In particular, the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools will be hosting a conference to support the continuing conversation surrounding partnership, continuous improvement, and scale. To learn more, please join us in downtown Nashville on October 8-9, 2015 for the NCSU’s second national conference, Using Continuous Improvement to Integrate Design, Implementation, and Scale Up. Register soon!
In addition to Chris, the following members of the NCSU team contributed to this post:
Lora Cohen-Vogel, PhD is the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Policy and Education Reform in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes and teaches about educational politics, teacher quality, school staffing policies, and taking effective practices to scale.
Brad Fatout is a veteran educator and school leader in Broward County, Florida. Mr. Fatout currently serves as an Assistant Principal at Charles W. Flanagan High School, and served as a high school teacher and coach before that. As a member of the NCSU’s design team, Mr. Fatout has contributed his invaluable experience as an educator, shaping the design of the BCPS innovation and leading the implementation and adaptation process in his school alongside a team of his colleagues.
Dan Traeger is a long-serving leader in Broward County, with over 13 years of experience as a principal of both middle and high schools, and has been recognized as a principal of the year by multiple organizations. In addition, Mr. Traeger has played a key role in the implementation of district initiatives, like the BCPS Secondary School Redesign. As part of the NCSU’s process, Mr. Traeger served as a member of the design team, advisor to NCSU leadership, and indispensible coordinator between the NCSU and BCPS.