Going Public with Research to Drive Engagement
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: Bringing Education Research Into the Public Sphere.
Research-practice partnerships all share a similar dream — we want to engage in high-quality, research-driven work that actually improves education. In school districts, that often happens behind closed doors with those closest to the work. But is there value in taking that conversation to a wider audience?
The Madison Education Partnership (MEP) has been in full operation for a little over two years. In that time, we have worked to simultaneously build an organization and create meaningful research products to drive change in Madison schools. In an effort to prove the critics wrong — those who said research takes too long to produce for it to be relevant — we pushed ourselves to complete a set of studies all focused on a single topic: Madison Metropolitan School District's (MMSD) four-year old kindergarten (4K) program. As we came to the end of the year, we had five completed studies waiting to be connected. The district had also recently brought on a new Director of Early Learning, ready to set the course for the 4K program moving forward and open to new ideas. The stars had aligned for MEP: a district wanting to chart a course forward, researchers with findings ready to help craft that path — a golden moment for an RPP.
There was only one small challenge: We had spent so much time focusing on getting each project done and released independently that we hadn't invested much energy into considering what to do with the projects collectively. The heads of our two organizations — the MMSD Superintendent and the Director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) — pressed us to up our public profile. They encouraged us to think beyond just releasing a brief or having meetings with small groups of administrators or teachers; instead, they pushed us to think of ways to showcase the work for the entire Madison community. Some of us were initially skeptical — hard to imagine anyone dedicating a free evening to talk about 4K research and practice — but we decided to try. The first annual MEP research symposium was born.
All in all, the event went incredibly well. We showcased five completed research studies around 4K and had a facilitated discussion about how to grow our 4K program based on this evidence. Our pre-registration maxed out and we ended up with over 80 people in the room representing a wide variety of interests, from 4K teachers to non-profit organizations to university faculty. We were able to see the research and practice sides of our partnership informally and formally come together in ways we had not expected. The MMSD Superintendent and WCER Director were thrilled and the local news media even made an appearance. All in all, a pretty successful event.
What did we learn for next time?
- Get the word out early and often — We put a lot of energy into advertising the event, and it seemed to pay off. We posted to our website and various email liservs; ran articles in the district's staff, principal, and family newsletters; put a press release out to the general media, which resulted in a local news story; sent invitations directly to the Board of Education, 4K teachers, and 4K principals and site directors; and posted event details in various social media platforms via MEP and the district, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Those efforts helped drive up registrations and attendees, making for a full room and great conversation. However, we could have started our promotions sooner. Some last minute registrants wished they had heard about the event earlier so more of their colleagues could have attended.
- We can adapt our respective culture — When we started planning the event, we confronted the natural tension between academic conferences and district professional development. One values an expert-to-audience model, with little focus on interaction; the other values a learning community, with opportunities for multiple voices to enter the room. This first time around, we were able to do both. It turns out a little exploration of norms can be fun, and our partnership benefited from publicly valuing both sides.
- Students are an amazing resource — MEPs undergraduate communications intern, Jonathan Mills, worked tirelessly to get the word out on social media and videography in place, and took photos throughout the event. We recruited an awesome set of graduate students from the UW-Madison's Interdisciplinary Training Program in Education Sciences to attend and take notes at table discussions, making it possible to compile all the learning for the district and create as short summary of themes. Without these smart and willing student volunteers, we could not have created the same experience.
Overall, the first annual MEP research symposium was a fantastic way to bring our research-practice partnership together around a year's worth of work. It connected individual studies, showcased district conversations about 4K, and created excitement about the MEP early childhood research to come. We know a public event like this is not the end of making our work public, but instead the start of a thoughtful engagement strategy. Jumpstarting that engagement with a celebration — complete with great research and cold beverages — made for one pretty great night.