Working Together: School District Leaders' Advice to Ed. Researchers
This post is by Christopher Harrison (@DrHarrison3774), Assistant Professor of Educational Theory and Practice at Montana State University, Billings (@msubillings) and shares the perspective of education practitioners. Stay tuned: Thursday's post will feature a researcher's response to this post.
It's becoming increasingly difficult to remember a time when the research-practice divide in education wasn't a central concern for policy makers, researchers, and practitioners. Recently, efforts to bridge this divide have focused on trying to encourage the development of stronger relationships between researchers and practitioners. The Institute for Education Sciences, for example, has expressed significant support for the creation of research-practice partnerships, aimed at uniting the efforts of both researchers and educators as they explore problems of practice. Similarly, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has championed the creation of Networked Improvement Communities, which draw upon both empirical research and the wisdom of practice to engage in systemic improvement — an idea the Gates Foundation has also thrown substantial support behind.
Given this renewed focus on building bridges between education research and practice, it is useful to take a step back and understand what building strong, positive, and useful relationships between researchers and practitioners can look like. In a recent study, colleagues at the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice and I analyzed close to 200 interviews with leaders in three large, urban districts across the U.S. — including cabinet-level leaders, unit and area supervisors, specialists, and teachers on special assignment. In those interviews, we asked leaders about their past experiences with researchers, what they valued in partners, and how research could better meet their needs.
Analyzing their responses to our questions allowed us to identify some key "advice" for researchers seeking to build stronger relationships with practitioners and increase the impact of their work.
1. Benefit the District's Work
First, researchers should do their best to ensure that their work aligns with and clearly benefits the district's primary mission. One of the leaders we spoke to, Kristen, noted that this wasn't always the case — that some partners weren't interested in having a "conversation" with her district about "where we're having our challenges with students' learning and what it is that [our] teachers need."
Other leaders concurred, and shared that it was meaningful to them when researchers took the time to understand their particular district's priorities and existing initiatives. District leaders explained that researchers who took the time to do so were able to "hold up a mirror," and provide them with an outsider's perspective on critical issues. A district leader named Tess described such partners as a force multiplier in her district, complementing the district's capacity, without supplanting or subverting their work. She shared that "the kind of partnerships I want [...] are those that develop our capacity, not those that come in and [...] solve a problem for us."
2. Develop Trust and Relationships
Second, the leaders we spoke to shared their appreciation for researchers who made an effort to build trust and meaningful relationships. Several leaders expressed that doing so began with creating a dynamic of mutual respect, in which it was clear that researchers "respect [practitioners'] thoughts as much as anybody else at the table." One leader, Talya, explained that "it feels like researchers often tell [school district leaders] what to do because they know more. That can seem condescending, or arrogant." For her, a key trait of an effective partner was some degree of "humbleness."
Similarly, a leader named Carter emphasized that his district's most effective relationships with researchers were characterized by transparency and a willingness to compromise. He was careful to point out that those relationships were far from perfect, explaining: "A great relationship does not mean that there are not growing pains and bumps. A great relationship does not mean it's always roses. [It] means that there are bumps and that we both can come to the table and talk about them."
3. Plan for Ongoing Engagement
Finally, leaders that we spoke to pushed back strongly on a model of research-practice relationship that lived and died within the span of one project or grant. Instead, they asserted that truly valuable collaboration was based on long-term, ongoing engagement with researchers. Kristin shared, for example, that her vision for building bridges between research and practice entailed a "paradigm shift for the researchers, [where] they're actually in a dialogue with us about their research." As part of that dialogue, she (and others) shared, researchers and educators might "work side by side" as "thought partners" around an array of emerging problems of practice.
A Paradigm Shift in Researcher-Practitioner Relationships
Taken together, the advice offered by these district leaders points to a vision about how researchers and practitioners should work together that is very different from what is often the reality. It centers on practice-focused, collaborative, and long-term partnerships, vested in both expanding our knowledge and supporting the real work of schools and districts. This stands in sharp contrast to what practitioners perceive more traditional research partnerships to be: time limited engagements more focused on the needs of researchers than those of their practitioner hosts.
Successfully undertaking that paradigm shift requires both communities to adopt new ways of communicating, collaborating, and engaging. For the research community, that may mean rethinking how we fund, govern, and reward research. Researchers should be encouraged, for example, to attend more practitioner-focused conferences to share their work, and to learn more about the questions that educators are asking. Similarly, institutions might think about how to reward researchers for pursuing projects that are smaller, more local, and as focused on impact as they are on research production.
Practitioners may also, of course, need to rethink some of their assumptions regarding researcher-practitioner relationships. A little later this week, our colleague Thad Domina will offer some thoughts on how leaders, teachers, and other educators might think differently about collaborating with researchers.
Read the entire study and all our findings here: Building Productive Relationships: District Leaders' Advice to Researchers.