What It Takes to Build and Sustain Education Research-Practice Partnerships
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on the ideas introduced by the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools partnership in Monday's post: New Roles for Education Doctoral Students: Internships in Early-Stage Partnerships.
Michèle Foster's post about the emerging University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools(JCPS) partnership—and the possibility of engaging doctoral students in the work—got me thinking about both the promises and the frustrations of building research-practice partnerships (RPPs), and on sustaining these efforts.
I am currently playing a supportive role with the partnership, drawing on experience with RPPs when I coordinated a Kentucky research alliance for Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia at CNA from 2013 through 2015, and then oversaw the work of six alliances as REL Appalachia Director in 2016. My involvement with the University of Louisville-JCPS partnership was serendipitous: I am based in Louisville, and Michèle and I ran into each other at a JCPS principals meeting. I was delighted to learn that she was developing a Louisville-based RPP with JCPS and offered to support the partnership in any way I could. As a former JCPS teacher with connections to several JCPS staff, I felt well positioned to support the work, and both organizations welcomed my engagement.
This welcoming approach and shared passion to drive positive change was refreshing and at the heart of what an RPP should be about; it is what I love about supporting early-stage RPP work. Yet we all know that "partnership" means different things to different people, particularly when bureaucratic organizations with multiple interests and similar funding challenges are involved. Those of us who jump enthusiastically into an RPP on the principle of the thing (i.e., directing our collective energy toward using research and data to improve student opportunities) are often brought up short by our organizational colleagues' questions or comments such as, "How much time will this take?", "What do I have to do?" and my least favorite, "Remind me what we're talking about." Then when we get to the project level, resistance to full engagement of all relevant partners may develop as questions emerge about how much of a particular grant each organization will get, who will be in charge, and why we have to spend so much time engaging all partners in project discussions.
If only we RPP enthusiasts could charge forward on our own, we could get these partnerships rolling a lot faster. But then, we wouldn't really have a partnership, would we? To me, a critical step to forming an RPP is getting leaders at the top of the organization on board—not just a perfunctory nod, but full commitment to the partnership concept and engagement with the work at the idea level. Building that sort of commitment takes resolve, perseverance, repetition, and time. As Michèle's comments indicate, progress is being made in our Louisville partnership, which is encouraging to see.
A second, equally challenging ingredient to a successful RPP is creating structures that will sustain the partnership through time and personnel changes. Michèle's proposal to engage doctoral students in the work is one approach that not only helps the partnership get off the ground by making smart use of limited funds, but also holds promise for sustainability.
In the short-term, engaging with an RPP would give education doctoral students hands-on experience with a research model that is relevant, collaborative, and a whole lot more fun than the much-dreaded research methods course required of many doctoral programs. These doctoral students could also help bridge the gap between research and practice because of the roles most of them play in JCPS. In the long term, this experience would hopefully create in our doctoral researchers, many of whom are or will be JCPS leaders, a passion for connecting researchers and practitioners to work hand-in-hand. This doctoral student internship model, then, could help build the next generation of RPP leaders.