Melia Repko-Erwin and Mary Quantz
This post originally appeared in Education Week’s “Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice” blog, facilitated by Paula Arce-Trigatti and Nina Spitzley, who lead the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNEERP). You can find a practitioner response to their post here.
There is increasing evidence that research-practice partnerships (RPPs) can help P-20 education researchers and practitioners connect, inform, and improve research, policy, and practice. But because education-based RPPs are a relatively recent development, questions remain regarding how and under what conditions these partnerships are able to achieve their goals. And, partnership work is not without challenges: A recent survey and interview study of 27 RPPs across the US conducted by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) suggests that partnerships are likely to encounter at least one of three common challenges: turnover of partnership members, differences in the timelines of researchers’ and educators’ work, and having the “right people at the table” to be able to act on the partnership’s findings.
These challenges to RPP work are not necessarily deal breakers, however. In fact, they can provide important opportunities for partnership growth by creating opportunities to strengthen relationships and build a stronger foundation for their work together. In this post, we draw from NCRPP’s recent study to highlight examples of partnerships whose experiences suggest that when it comes to facing challenges, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
1) Addressing Turnover: Trust, Communication, and Shared Vision Across Organizations
Most of the RPPs in our study experienced turnover of partnership members, particularly within the practice organizations. Reorganization of personnel—especially in school districts and state education agencies—was also common. In some cases, partners’ new roles made it impossible for them to continue working in the partnership. In other cases, partners’ time was severely limited.
While turnover and reorganization pose significant challenges, especially when originators leave, many RPPs that experienced turnover sustained and sometimes even accelerated their progress toward meeting goals. Members attributed this success to mutual trust, regular communication, and sharing a vision for educational improvement with their partners.
Some researchers and education leaders further discussed the importance of building relationships with people at multiple levels in the educational organization. As one researcher put it, “Always work on building trust with as many people as you can, because ultimately, if there’s turnover in a high level, it’s better to rely on other people to keep things going, and to aggregate on your behalf.” In this case, building trust with people on many levels who shared the partnership’s vision gave the existing partners an anchor to work through the turnover challenges.
Strong and continuing communication about roles and expectations in light of turnover was also essential. As one researcher explained: “I think the whole group needs to come together and reevaluate their roles and who is going to do or take on some of that other responsibility if they’re not bringing on new members. I think it needs to be shared decision-making for sure.” These examples—among many others—revealed that turnover, though challenging, need not be fatal for partnership work.
2) Negotiating Timelines: Trusting Relationships Within and Between Organizations Facilitate Flexibility
Many partnerships were also challenged by the differences in how researchers and practitioners paced their work. As one RPP member noted, school districts tend to be “fast-paced,” while researchers can be “slow and methodical.” Education leaders often needed data or recommendations sooner than researchers could provide. Several RPP members also had competing work demands, limiting the time available for collaborative work. Although these challenges had the potential to slow or halt partnership work, many RPPs drew on strong inter- and intra-organizational relationships in order to be flexible in accommodating each other’s working conditions.
One researcher described her practice partner’s relationships within the educational organization, which allowed their RPP to adjust timelines as necessary:
“She was also really well connected. She had her ear to the ground, or her finger on the power…of the schools and the district, and what was going on, and she was able to answer and help us in making adjustments to the timeline. I think she was—I mean, not only when it came to timelines, she was our secret weapon, and not that much of a secret, but she was really, really instrumental in making sure we didn’t face too many timeline issues.”
The district leader described above further identified flexibility as an important strategy for addressing timeline challenges:
“I felt like [the research organization] had more flexibility than we did…I think in an organization like ours there were some things we couldn’t get around, but they could. I guess whoever has more constraints placed on them, when it comes to time, maybe is the one you need to work with more.”
RPP members stressed the importance of accounting for their partners’ working conditions and adjusting timelines accordingly to support them. To do this, RPP members benefited from strong inter- and intra-organizational relationships.
3) Getting the Right People at the Table: Trusting Relationships Facilitate the Involvement of Key Leaders
Several RPPs included education leaders with limited authority to make policy or program decisions. This made it hard to act on partnership findings, or even give priority to partnership work within the educational organization. Research and practice partners addressed this challenge by involving “mid-level” education leaders who championed the RPP and could see alignment between partnership work and other goals and initiatives within their organization. In some cases, RPPs also brought in new members over time. As one researcher stated:
“I think that the real key was when we first started the partnership, we approached [our practice partners] about [who should be involved]. They were the ones that wanted to do this research, so they knew who the key players on their end would be. Then, as we started to talk about other things, they [brought] those people in. They talked about early childhood, they brought the early childhood coordinator in to talk about what we could do in early childhood.”
Even if partnerships did not have all the “right” players involved from the beginning, partnerships found that relationships and communication were key to bringing those people in later.
In Conclusion: Trusting Relationships Are a Condition AND Outcome of Partnership Work
Though one might assume that challenges in RPPs are obstacles to avoid, we argue to the contrary: When partnerships encounter challenges, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Because at least one of the challenges we described was experienced by all of the RPPs in our study, it is likely that some challenges are unavoidable. Even more, challenges provide important opportunities for partners to both draw on and deepen existing relationships, both within and across organizations. In this way, trusting relationships are both a condition for and outcome of partnerships that sustain long-term work together.