by Anna-Ruth Allen & Caitlin Farrell
As more school districts set up arrangements with local universities and other external research partners, we need models of partnering that are effective and mutualistic. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan (Feb 2015) article, Drs. Marco A. Muñoz and Robert J. Rodosky from Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky offer a valuable school district perspective on (a) what makes work with research partners more or less productive, (b) who benefits, and (c) under what conditions.
Muñoz and Rodosky take the position that “research intended to improve teaching and learning – not just the agenda of researchers – can yield powerful results.” They reflect on several partnerships in their district that have been beneficial, including a co-designed and implemented doctoral program for teachers and administrators at University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development. One goal of the program was to have participating teachers and administrator focus on research-based projects that were directly relevant for improving teaching and learning in the district. Other successful projects named include: the Strategic Data Project with Harvard University, the 8-year, design-based Middle School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching project with Vanderbilt University, and the Literacy Academy Project with Bellarmine University. These partnerships were long-term collaborations that successfully leveraged research to address persistent problems of practice.
Notes For Research Partners
Based on these positive experiences (and presumably, experiences with partners that were less-than-successful), the authors’ most pointed claims are made to researchers. Too often, the authors remind us, researchers have treated districts, schools, and classrooms as “data collection sites,” rather than as partners.
Also, researchers’ questions often do not map directly onto the work of teaching and learning and the challenges of schools and districts. Muñoz and Rodosky insist that all parties be upfront and clear about the fit between the research’s guiding questions and the district’s agenda (e.g., strategic plan). While social science sometimes investigates phenomena that are not the first or most obvious issues on practitioners’ minds, the authors argue is that there must be clear benefit and guidance that comes from research conducted in schools and districts. Otherwise, the exchange is simply not a fair one for districts.
Finally, the authors are clear to point out that reporting findings at the end of a study is not enough. They state: “We want guidance for our daily practice. In fact, if given a choice, school districts would prefer less information about the technical accuracy details behind a study and more about the usefulness (i.e. practical implications) of the research. The more clearly and succinctly findings from quality research can be communicated, the more likely they are going to be actionable and benefit students” (p.46)
Notes For District Leaders
The authors also have recommendations for district leaders. They direct educational leaders to keep the district’s interests, as well as federal, state, and local protections for vulnerable populations, front and center of decisions about research in the district. They recommend that district creates a “data-access plan” that makes the process of vetting proposals clear and strategic. Ultimately, what that vetting process needs to do is weigh the value of the research against the costs of providing access: “If the burden of data collection outweighs the value of the research, then school systems have the right to decline requests” (p. 43). District leaders should not be afraid to turn down an opportunity for a research partnership if it does not serve district needs.
Muñoz and Rodosky make a strong case that research-practice partnerships can be a productive strategy for improving schools and districts. They are also clear, however, that it can be difficult for researchers and district administrators involved in partnerships to always anticipate and address the issues they may face in organizing their work together. This article offers a thoughtful consideration about the strategic trade-offs partnerships face and the resources that are required for success from the district perspective. Similar reflections – from researchers, funders, policymakers – will be important to move this conversation forward.