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Volume 19, Number 6
November/December 2003

“Research I Can Sink My Teeth Into”

Making the research-practice partnership work


English teacher Warren Wolfe has his doubts about much of the education research he has seen over the years: "I can read research reports until the cows come home, but until the gap is bridged between research and practice—between data and something specific that I can change in my classroom—there's a real disconnect."

Wolfe may therefore seem an unlikely candidate for a working partnership with a Harvard researcher. But he is one of about two dozen teachers at Evanston (Ill.) Township High School involved in the Tripod Project, based on work by Ronald Ferguson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to combat the underachievement of minority (primarily African American and Latino) students.

Twenty school districts participate in the project, with levels of participation ranging from entire districts—Ohio has the largest number of schools involved—to smaller groups of faculty within schools, as is the case in Evanston. The "tripod" in the project's title refers to the three "legs" on which Ferguson says school success stands: pedagogy, relationships, and content.

In one component of the project, students complete surveys about scholastic achievement and related issues such as teacher support, peer relationships, and academic self-confidence, while teachers complete surveys about their students and their own classroom practices. Before survey instruments are finalized, teachers and administrators from a few participating schools help to fine-tune the wording of questions. Then, after data have been compiled, Ferguson gives schools reports of the aggregate survey data as well as their own results, along with related questions to facilitate faculty discussion and planning. Teachers can also view individual class data on the project website using a personal identification number, or PIN.

A primary goal of the project, Ferguson says, is to "foster cooperation across school buildings where we can harvest teachers' best ideas about how to be successful" with minority students. To that end, participating educators post what Ferguson calls "harvesting reports" to the Tripod Project website, summarizing discussions they have engaged in and strategies they have used.

In addition, educators from 18 Tripod Project schools attended a conference last August in Cleveland, where they exchanged ideas and contributed input to a "vision statement" for the project. In a future stage of the project, Ferguson will coordinate a series of "Tripod Trials," in which educators will conduct experiments in their classrooms to test promising strategies identified in research studies or by other educators.

"One thing that distinguishes the project from other [research-practice partnerships] is that I'm not bringing in any answers," Ferguson says. "Instead, I tell people, 'most of the answers are already in your building.'"

The Tripod Project is just the type of research-practice collaborative envisioned in the SERP model. But as others who have attempted to create such partnerships have observed, Ferguson notes that securing the time and personnel resources that are necessary for practitioner participation can be a major challenge. Teacher skepticism can be another one: "A lot of practitioners think research is just ivory tower stuff and begin from the premise that researchers don't know anything about the real world," he says.

At least one skeptical practitioner, however, sees new hope in the Tripod Project. This year, Warren Wolfe has begun to employ a number of strategies in his classroom to help underachieving students move from "help-avoidance" to "help-seeking" behaviors, a goal suggested by the project's findings. For example, Wolfe has replaced the usual "see me" notes at the end of problematic homework assignments with friendlier missives on personalized stationery. So far, he has been pleased with his students' response—and with the relevance of the research project to his day-to-day work.

"It's about making the data meaningful," Wolfe says. "Give me something I can sink my teeth into and my practice will change."

For Further Information

For Further Information

R.F. Ferguson. “What Doesn’t Meet the Eye: Understanding and AddressingRacial Disparities in High-Achieving Suburban Schools.” North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Tripod Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.