Voices in Education

Forming Partnerships to Bridge Research and Practice
Educators, researchers, and policy makers share a prevalent desire for evidence-based programs in education, and relatively long-standing policies—continuing with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—have called for these research-based interventions. However, a big divide exists between almost all research and practice in education.
In hopes of bridging this divide, there is a lot of buzz these days about research-practice partnerships (RPPs). RPPs are long-term collaborations between researchers and educators that are focused on studying and addressing problems of practice. They are increasingly popular, because everyone recognizes that the complex problems facing education require an “all hands on deck” approach to addressing them. Researchers and educators working together can diagnose those problems effectively, and they can also design, test, and develop evidence for solutions to those problems. Importantly, in a partnership, researchers stick around to help educators address the new problems that arise from implementation of potential solutions.
RPPs can be particularly valuable as states begin full implementation of ESSA this school year. RPPs bring together teams with diverse kinds of expertise, enabling the required evidence-basis in ESSA implementation plans to meet both researchers’ standards for rigor and practitioners’ need for usefulness and relevance. States are designing novel implementation plans and adapting previously established programs for new contexts, which means that many of these plans will not have an extensive research base to draw on. RPPs conduct the type of design-based implementation research appropriate for developing, adapting, and evaluating evidence-based programs that can be effective in local contexts.
While RPPs are a promising strategy, creating new partnerships is challenging and takes time. Researchers are used to addressing questions that reflect their own interests and those of other researchers. It is risky for educators to commit to the iterative testing of a solution before it is rolled out across a system when stakeholders demand quick action on pressing and persistent problems. Researchers and educators work on different timescales, and so developing a rhythm that is responsive to the speed of practice but also allows for careful research and analysis typically evolves in fits and starts.
Both of us have had experience starting and sustaining successful partnerships from different directions: Bill as a researcher, and Dan as an education leader. Bill has worked closely with Denver Public Schools for more than ten years in a partnership with curriculum leaders in mathematics and science. Their joint work involves curriculum and assessment design, as well as professional development and implementation. Dan has worked closely for several years with multiple external partners, most intensively with the Institute for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Washington. Their work is similar to the Denver partnership, and we regularly trade stories, tools, and practices across our two partnerships. Here, we synthesize some advice for getting started based on our observations of successful and unsuccessful efforts to form a partnership:
Start with people you know and trust. Once you have your question or focal problem to tackle, think about the researchers and educators in your region that people already know and trust. If you are an education leader, ask colleagues you trust for recommendations about who might be a good research partner, given your school system’s concerns. If you are a researcher, ask colleagues who work closely with schools and districts which systems have needs that match your areas of interest and expertise.
Start with an openness to explore and negotiate a working relationship. When one partner approaches the other with a plan already arranged for how they’d like to work with that partner, that person is already off on the wrong foot. Approach one another as if you are on a first date, getting to know each other and trying to figure out if you have some common interests.
Start by identifying what you hope to learn from each other in the partnership. It’s important to start with the premise that you both have something to learn from one another, not that you have solutions or resources to give. To figure this out, it’s important to get to know each other: What are the big concerns and initiatives of the district? What kinds of expertise does the research partner bring?
Last, start small. Negotiate the focus of a small project first, rather than jumping right into a bigger endeavor. A small project allows you develop a relationship and work out any kinks with less of an investment. When a partnership is working, you can begin to think about planning beyond the current project. Partnerships that are long term and built on trust can be enduring sources of support for education improvement.

About the Author: Dan Gallagher is the Director of Career and Technical Education for Shoreline Public Schools, WA. Bill Penuel is the Professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. They are the authors of Creating Research-Practice Partnerships in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2017).