by Kristen Davidson and Mary Quantz
The National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) has just released an interim report summarizing findings from the first year of a two-year study of the Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships in Education Research program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The grant program supports two-year collaborations among researchers and practitioners in a variety of educational organizations, including school districts, departments of education, and social services agencies.
NCRPP’s study of the program describes how 27 IES-funded researcher-practitioner partnerships (RPPs) address a variety of educational issues. Through surveys and interviews, 106 researchers and practitioners shared their RPPs’ aims, challenges, projected outcomes, and experiences as they engaged in new ways of working together. Here we share a few common themes related to partnerships’ goals, challenges, and benefits of researcher-practitioner collaboration.
Partnerships Studied a Variety of Educational Issues
The researcher-practitioner partnerships (RPPs) we studied focused on a wide range of educational issues, such as early childhood education, adult education, postsecondary readiness, instruction for students in poverty or emerging bilingual learners, teacher effectiveness policies, and connecting systems across educational and social services agencies.
All participants named partnership goals consistent with the grant program’s aims to conduct and use research to impact local improvement efforts. In doing so, RPPs most often pursued descriptive or exploratory research questions such as, “What is the average number of annual school changes [transfers], regardless of reason, for students in foster care?” Pursuing a question like this often involved connecting new databases and sources of information. Researchers and practitioners reported that collaborating in this work led to better understandings of the data and the possible solutions.
While partnerships focused primarily on goals related to their local contexts, they also aimed to inform the work of others both inside and outside of their organizations. They shared their work in a variety of venues, including research journals, practitioner-focused magazines, professional conferences, websites, videos, and more.
Participants also emphasized the importance of partnerships’ goals to develop both relationships and the capacity of researchers and practitioners to work together collaboratively.
As one researcher put it, “In the initial partnership … [it was] about getting a better understanding of who our partner was and how we could be the best possible partners.” Developing relationships was especially important for newer partnerships that needed to learn about their partners’ concerns and to build a foundation for addressing them together effectively.
Researchers and Practitioners Highly Valued Working in Partnerships
Participants reported very positive attitudes toward working in the partnerships. All agreed or strongly agreed that they would participate in an RPP in the future. Participants described several benefits to working in partnerships, such as improving organizational structures for research use and increasing access to resources and expertise related to specific problems of practice.
Both researchers and practitioners explained that the quality and applicability of research had improved as a result of the partnership.
Said one district leader, “We have some good relationships with other researchers, particularly a couple other local ones. But, it’s not the same collaboration that we would see, certainly, in this type of partnership. Here, we come up with a common research agenda, we agree on the particular focus we’re going to have, how we’re going to conduct the research. That’s been the real strength of the partnership.”
Practitioners in 24 of the 27 partnerships reported that the work of their RPP differed from their previous experiences conducting or participating in research studies. Despite common challenges that come with new ways of working together, participants overwhelmingly claimed that working in partnerships was highly valuable to their own work.
Partnerships Worked Through Common Challenges Together
The biggest challenges that partnerships reported were organizational turnover, accessing and using databases, and coordinating researchers’ and practitioners’ differing schedules and timelines. About half of participants noted organizational turnover as a substantial challenge that resulted in the need to build relationships with new team members.
One researcher explained, “New people [who] step into leadership positions … don’t fully understand the partnership. … That newness of people, that occasionally interjects the need to go back and build relationships and understanding.”
Nearly half of participants also reported that accessing and using data sets posed significant challenges, particularly with regard to data-sharing agreements and privacy concerns. RPPs whose goals included a need to link identifiable data (e.g., individual student achievement data) with other variables within and across organizations often had to first devote time to gaining access to protected data and aligning disparate systems.
Supporting and Working in Partnerships
Researchers and practitioners in the partnerships that we studied conducted and used research together to impact local improvement efforts, develop capacity for partnership work, and inform the work of others. While some challenges arose that are common to new collaborations, RPP members reported that they highly valued their work together and that it improved the quality and applicability of research findings and data use.
The next phase of NCRPP’s study of IES-funded RPPs will explore these issues in order to offer insights into supporting or working in partnerships. Our early findings, however, add to a growing body of evidence that partnerships such as these provide valuable opportunities to leverage researchers’ and practitioners’ expertise in addressing persistent issues in education.