What is a Research-Practice Partnership?

Consistent with the notion of research-practice partnership (RPPs) offered by Coburn, Penuel, and Geil (2013), we define RPPs as long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations that promote the production and use of rigorous research about problems of practice. RPPs are intentionally organized, and hold promise for improving the relevance of the research produced, the use of research by organizations, and outcomes for youth.

And while there are many ways researchers and practitioners work together—consulting relationships, training partnerships, and single research projects, the research-practice partnerships that inspired this website have adopted a longer term view, involve organizational personnel from the outset, benefit all parties, attend to their relationship, and support the use of what is learned from the research. For many, this is a new approach to thinking about ways to leverage and integrate the expertise housed by both practice and research.

Why Research-Practice Partnerships?

To address persistent problems of practice in child welfare, child and adolescent mental health, education, and juvenile and criminal justice, practitioners need rigorous research evidence that is relevant to their work. But too often the evidence produced by research institutions is shaped by the traditional values of the academy—the work is rigorous, but it speaks most clearly to the research community. Without clear roadmaps and resources to correct this misalignment, stubborn gaps persist between research, policy, and practice.

Research-practice partnerships are a promising strategy for better aligning the research and practice communities. Researchers who partner with practitioners are well equipped to understand local contexts, address pressing questions, and produce informative and actionable findings. They also gain access to policy insights and data that can facilitate rigorous and groundbreaking research. Likewise, practitioners can more easily access, interpret, and use research evidence when they collaborate with researchers and help define research agendas. Partnerships, then, equip organizations—whether they are school districts, public agencies, or nonprofit entities—with new knowledge and tools to better serve youth.

How do Research-Practice Partnerships Work?

When we look across youth serving systems, some qualities of RPPs are fundamental. While the specific contexts, environments, and needs vary across youth serving systems, some qualities of RPPs are fundamental and unchanging. That is, while the work may look different, the principles remain the same.

RPPs focus on a local problem of practice or policy

  • Joint development of a research agenda that unites the needs and interests of the practitioners and researchers
  • Adoption of a long-term commitment
  • Trusting relationships
  • Collaboration that is beneficial to all partners

Sustainability depends heavily on funding

In addition, regardless of the system within which they operate, building research-practice partnerships requires significant investments. It takes time to develop the trusted relationships that form the foundation of the partnership. It takes resources to establish the infrastructure to grow a partnership. And it takes committed leadership and expertise from both the research and practice communities to sustain the production and use of rigorous and relevant research.

  • Funding contexts and likely funding sources differ significantly
  • Many RPPs operate on lean budgets, funded on a project-by-project basis with little funding to support the development of the partnership.
  • University support makes a critical difference for sustained researcher engagement in such partnerships.

How do RPPs vary?

While RPPs in justice, child welfare, mental health, and education contexts share the same principles, they also differ in important ways. For instance, RPPs may vary in terms of capacity, involvement of multiple agencies or stakeholders, jurisdictional boundaries, or statutory/legal constraints. Also:

Systems and organizations vary in terms of:

  • History of partnering
  • Whether decision-making occurs in a high or low stakes environment
  • Existing infrastructure for data-focused partnership work
  • Existing staffing capacity and approaches to staffing partnership work

Opportunities for learning networks among RPPs vary:

  • Education partnerships have an emerging set of networks to support and promote the development of RPPs (NNERPP and others). Partnerships in other arenas have fewer networking opportunities.
  • In other RPP environments, the strength and availability of networks vary. Some partnerships operate outside of a peer group of similarly focused partnerships. Others are part of a loose, informal network composed of other researchers doing similar work.

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