Bringing Education Research Into the Public Sphere
Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.
For research-practice partnerships (RPPs), developing an outreach and engagement strategy is becoming a commonly recognized need, even one that is included as a requirement for some grant proposals. Unlike in traditional research, the goal for RPPs is not simply to produce research for an academic audience with only distant implications for educational policy and practice. Rather, RPPs aim to actively engage practitioner partners with the research, and, when possible, to also engage the broader public with the research findings. Here, we discuss the challenges we experienced and choices we made for our first foray into the public sphere.
The Madison Education Partnership (MEP) has been in full operation for a little over two years and has produced a suite of research on the Madison Metropolitan School District's (MMSD) four-year-old kindergarten (4K) program, covering a variety of research questions, from attendance patterns to issues around homelessness to the development of social interaction assessments (visit the MEP website for more details). The unique structure of MEP includes supporting other university researchers in conducting thematically aligned work (Supported work) while simultaneously supporting internal MEP research (Directed work).
We had already crafted mechanisms to engage with our partnering district's leadership throughout the research process — the next step was to reach a broader audience. Our research touches on the experiences of students and families in the district, and also has implications for 4K teachers' practice and 4K policy in MMSD. Additionally, Madison is unique in that the 4K landscape is made up of both public and private educational centers. We felt that bringing our research to these broader audiences of parents, practitioners, and leaders from the district and beyond would be an important step if our research was to be useful and meaningful in shaping 4K in Madison.
Creating a New Form of Outreach
As we thought about how to best engage the broader community with our research findings, we had to carefully navigate the organizational context of each of our partners, as is the case in most collaborative efforts we undertake — be it drafting research briefs or planning meetings. For example, district events tend to be interactive and conversational. In contrast, the traditional university research event tends to use a less interactive presentation-Q&A format. A "town-hall" style Q&A might typically be as interactive as university presentations get. In our first big public event, we wanted to respect the styles of each partner by developing a blended format. We also knew it was important for us to involve the district's 4K leadership to ensure it was a collaborative and useful effort for both parties.
Ultimately, we settled on an afternoon, three hour "Research Symposium" format with the first half of the symposium being traditional, but short, research presentations and the second half consisting of small group discussions led by questions posed by the district's new Director of Early Learning. The timing of the symposium, we hoped, would allow participants from the district and university to attend. The brevity of the symposium in whole would make a "research" event seem less daunting.
The Challenge of Translating Research
We instructed the presenting researchers to be prepared to present to an audience that varied in their level of exposure to research methodology and statistical knowledge. As with any of the research products we produce through MEP, translating the research description and findings for a broad audience challenges the researchers to elaborate on statistical findings, avoid using research jargon, and condense their descriptions into the most useful and powerful findings — a challenge for academics who tend to do more expounding on research rather than condensing.
Small group discussions were focused on what audience members perceived as a quality 4K environment, appropriate 4K assessments, and student readiness for 5K. We also wanted to ensure that the event was as useful to our district partners as possible, so we had table note-takers recording responses in a Google drive for the district to access later. Building institutional knowledge and capacity is part of the role of a research-practice partnership and we were able to use the symposium as a function of that role.
Why Go Through the Trouble?
In traditional research arrangements, the researcher is primarily invested in completing a study and publishing results of that study. The goal of RPPs like MEP must necessarily be different if they are to produce useful research that serves to build trust, communication, and collaboration between partners. Hosting a research symposium was a great way for our team to make our research useful beyond the district leadership we had already been in contact with, without putting too much pressure on our internal capacity to reach teachers and community leaders.
Fortunately, the symposium was well received, with over 100 registrants. Using social media and targeted outreach we reached a broader audience than we had even anticipated; including teachers from MMSD as well as other districts, private 4K center staff and leadership, parents, education researchers, and university students in the early childhood education programs. Our district partner received a wealth of information and feedback from the event and our researchers had the opportunity to bring their work into a community space, well beyond the typical peer reviewed journal or standard conference presentation. In the future, MEP will continue to seek out areas where we can "peel back the lid" on our research in a collaborative and engaging way.
Previous blog posts by the Madison Education Partnership:
- Can Kindergarten for 4-Year-Olds Help Close Equity Gaps?
- The Benefits of Research-Practice Partnership Work
- Lessons Learned from Developing a 'No Surprises' Policy for Releasing Research Findings
- No Surprises' Policies Between School Districts and Universities: The Surprising Reality
Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!