Tips for School District Leaders Working in Research-Practice Partnerships
This post is by Erin Henrick (@erinhenrick), Senior Research Associate and Project Manager of the Middle School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching (MIST) project, and Michael Sorum, former member of MIST and district leader partner in the Fort Worth Independent School District.
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: How Can Education Research-Practice Partnerships Assess Their Effectiveness?
In this post, I interview Mike Sorum on his opinion about the recently published paper written by me, Paul Cobb, Bill Penuel, Kara Jackson, and Tiffany Clark. In our paper, we describe a framework for assessing the effectiveness of research-practice partnerships (RPPs), identifying five dimensions of effectiveness. This blog post aims to provide some guidance for district leaders working to develop and maintain an effective research-practice partnership.
Erin Henrick: The first dimension of effectiveness is building trust and cultivating partnership relationships. How critical do you think this dimension is for the success of the partnership? What advice would you give other district leaders in an RPP seeking to develop authentic partnership teams?
Mike Sorum: Trust is essential for any partnership to be successful. From the perspective of school districts, opening our doors to researchers entails a number of risks. Districts, particularly urban districts, are under a great deal of public and political pressure. RPPs address areas of need or unsatisfactory achievement in a district. Engaging in an RPP could be viewed as district leaders saying, "We have a problem and we need help fixing it." Not everyone is comfortable with public admission of a problem, especially in a politically charged urban context.
If I were engaging in a new RPP today, I would spend a significant amount of time researching the researchers myself. What is their record of collaboration with other districts? Were they honest yet constructive? How was knowledge gained from the partnership distributed publicly? Additionally, it is critical to look at how the partner interacted with the district. Were they respectful of the limited time district staff have for interacting with researchers? How did they communicate with the district point person? Finally, the district should ask probably the most important question: Was the partnership associated with improved outcomes for the students of the district?
Henrick: The second dimension is conducting rigorous research to inform action. What advice would you give to district leaders in research-practice partnerships? How can district leaders support the goal of conducting research that informs district action?
Sorum: Assuming that trust has been established, district leaders need to be thoroughly forthcoming and open about anything that will impact the viability of a healthy and successful partnership. What is the history of research in the district? What are the perceived challenges for an effective implementation? Additionally, district leaders have to be ready to accept and use information that might reveal weak points of an implementation. District leaders' first responsibility is always to the students and families and must ensure with reasonable certainty that the research will not cause harm to its stakeholders. But once that is assured, district leadership needs to be open to hear and respond to hard truths and take action to improve implementation.
Henrick: The third dimension is supporting the partner practice organization in achieving its goals. In a perfect world, how would you envision researchers and school district leaders working together to achieve district goals? How far away is what you described from what is typically happening?
Sorum: This might sound professionally heretical, but prior to MIST, my confidence in the capacity of research to impact positive change within a district was, at best, neutral. The data in typical RCT research are so distilled, it is a challenge to adapt them to a different context.
I believe that the model of collaboration developed during the MIST project has great potential to improve a district's implementation of an initiative intended to improve outcomes for students. At the time MIST began, I had quite a few years of experience working with research in districts. The MIST model was definitely atypical. MIST researchers spent a great deal of time getting to know the district and developing an understanding of the context and capacity of district leadership. They also had very clear timelines of study, reporting, engaging in dialogue with the district players, and a protocol for bringing hard truths to the table in a way that allowed staff to be open and thoughtful about the findings. Researchers and school district leaders were truly working together.
Henrick: The fourth dimension is producing knowledge that can inform educational improvement efforts more broadly. In your opinion, what priority should this goal take in RPPs?
Sorum: Good district leadership and good researchers typically share a common goal of improving outcomes for students. However, the incentives and pressures that these two parties face in their respective contexts are quite different. Districts are driven by student accountability outcomes and researchers, while they certainly share the desire of improved outcomes, face all of the pressures associated with typical university contexts: funding, publishing, et cetera. The perhaps greatest potential of RPPs is that instead of seeing these as competing forces, they seek to align them to serve the greatest goal of improved student outcomes while also serving district goals of improved accountability ratings and researcher goals of ensuring continued funding and tenure through quality publishing.
At its base, any RPP worth engaging in must have a clear and actionable goal of improving outcomes for students.
Henrick: The fifth dimension is building the capacity of participating researchers, practitioners, practice organizations, and research organizations to engage in partnership work. What do you think practitioners and practice organizations need to do to build capacity for this work?
Sorum: I love this question. Senior district leaders balance all sorts of spinning plates. One of the plates that can often fall is that of building the capacity of rising leaders. These leaders range from teachers to campus leaders to mid-level district administrators. Senior leaders need to ensure that their staff are supported to think critically, communicate constructively, and make informed decisions using evidence.
Districts leaders can build capacity within their organization to engage in partnership work by providing personnel with the time, opportunity, and incentive to participate in partnership activities with researchers. MIST provided opportunities for rising district leaders to experience good research practices. I can say with great confidence that the capacity of every individual in the system who touched MIST came away with a greater awareness of the importance of design and evaluation of everything we do—from writing quality lesson plans to evaluating staff, to deciding how to improve, or whether to continue, a current major implementation.