So You Think You Can Build My Capacity? Thoughts From a District Research Office
This post is by Joy Lesnick (@joylesnick), Director of Research, Policy, and Practice in the School District of Philadelphia's Office of Research and Evaluation (@PHLschools). Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: Moving Beyond Building Practitioner Capacity to Mutual Learning in Research-Practice Partnerships.
"Wait. Tell me again why you're trying to build my capacity?"
That was my reaction while attending my first NNERPP Annual Forum as a "practitioner," or a representative from an agency that primarily administers education, and the topic of "building practitioner capacity to use research" came up. To be honest, I was a little surprised myself that I had this response. When I was a "researcher," or more accurately, most recently the Acting Commissioner of IES's National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, the goal of much of my work was "capacity building." So why does it feel so strange to hear the words "capacity building" now that I work in a school district?
Who is a practitioner?
Part of my response was related to my new identity. Although I now work in a District research office, I still see myself as a researcher (and as the Director of the Office of Research and Evaluation, my colleagues certainly see me as a researcher). By virtue of working in a school district, I suppose I am also a practitioner. But that identity doesn't quite fit either. In conversations about research-practice partnerships (RPPs), District research office staff find themselves in a somewhat forgotten middle ground. We're researchers (many with PhD training); we have dozens of ongoing projects of our own; and we vet and coordinate all externally-conducted research in the District. We "partner" with our program office colleagues in the central office to help them generate questions of interest, develop logic models for their programs/policies/approaches, monitor and measure program implementation, and share findings about implementation and outcomes with a variety of audiences. It is, in essence, an internal District-level RPP.
In the District research office, we also work with external researchers - both as partners and in partnership (the latter takes a lot more time). When external researchers want to partner with practitioners, I often send them to the program offices (in my mind they're the practitioners), and the District research office also joins the conversation as an intermediary, helping to keep the conversations and projects going internally while the external researchers are absent. Are we building program office staff capacity? I hope so (does that contradict the title of this post?).
We do want help from external researchers
Two reasons I enjoy working in a District research office are the proximity to practice and the daily opportunities for applied research to be both useful and used. In a large, urban school district, there are many needs, few resources, achievement gaps to close for all kinds of students, and a deadline of last week. The pace of the job means that time for reflection is a luxury, so thinking time is something I value highly from our external research partners. The big projects in our office are often a year long (or more - we are researchers), but a large portion of what we do is short-term work. Because it's easy to get caught up in the urgency of the day-to-day, we rely on external research partners to help us also stay focused on long-term questions. In that way, the work of RPPs is complementary to the work of the District research office.
Increased capacity - external researchers need it too
When I joined the District research office 8 months ago, I quickly learned there was a lot of existing district capacity. I also quickly learned how much time internal research staff spend supporting external researchers. Much of this support is related to understanding existing district efforts, how they relate to district needs, and how a new project can find a good fit. Our best external partners approach these conversations with an understanding that we are building their capacity too. So the next time you think about how you build my capacity, don't forget to also consider how I'm building yours!