What are the different types of research-practice partnerships?
In a 2013 paper, scholars Coburn, Penuel and Geil, described three types of RPPs, summarized here:
Research Alliance: A long-term partnership between a district and an independent research organization focused on investigating questions of policy and practice that are central to the district.
- Research Alliance for New York City Schools
- University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
- Baltimore Education Research Consortium
- Regional Educational Laboratories
- John W. Gardner Center
Design-Based Research Partnership: Design research is form of educational research that is similar to engineering research. Partnerships aim to simultaneously build and study solutions in real world contexts.
Networked Improvement Communities (NIC): Networks that seek to leverage diverse experiences in multiple districts or schools. The goal is to understand what works where, when, and under what conditions
What questions should partners ask as they structure their partnership?
Partnerships are shaped by local contexts, but many of them confront a common set of questions as they get off the ground.
- What is the size of the partnership?
- How are stakeholders represented?
- How broad and complex is our agenda?
- What is our geographic reach?
- What history precedes this partnership, and how can we deal with that from the beginning?
- What does each institution need for the partnership to work?
The answers to these questions will determine the partnership’s structure. A partnership with a broad geographic reach will have to think differently about communications and how often in-person meetings are convened. An expansive or complex agenda may require multiple institutional partners (e.g., both public and charter education agencies). History may dictate that certain partners—for example, those with closer ties and credibility in communities—become central members.
What is the best institutional home for partnerships?
David Stevens, Director of Research Engagement at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, argues that there is not one easy answer. He says that “different types of institutional arrangements bring with them different benefits and challenges. Understanding what those are is important.”
For some, the institutional home is already determined – for example, a university agrees to house a consortium or has established a center to take the lead as the research partner. Others have the freedom to seek an institutional home – either within a particular university setting or as a non-profit organization. In all of these circumstances, it is critical to understand how your institutional context will affect your ability to be an effective partner, and to use that knowledge to structure the partnership.
What kinds of agreements do partners develop as they start out?
Some partnerships develop charters, MOUs, and operating principles. These documents typically answer the following questions:
- Goals: What research areas will the partnership focus on, and toward what end?
- Roles: Who needs to be engaged as a partner to develop, maintain, and advance the work of the partnership? What are our expectations for members of the partnership? How will each partner’s expectations be addressed in agreements?
- Board Composition: How large should an advisory or executive board be? Which stakeholders should be represented to ensure that the Board’s diversity and reach supports the partnership’s goals and research agenda?
- Governance: How will we make decisions within the partnership? What authority, accountability, and lines of communication will support joint work?
- Operating Principles: What do we need to articulate about the way we will work together? How do our operating principles inform our governance structure and decision-making process?
- Timeframes: How long will these agreements remain in effect? When should we revisit them?
Is there a level playing field between research and district partners?
Research about schools is not new. But there is as much history of research done to schools as there is research done on schools. Fewer examples exist of research done in partnership with schools. RPPs are often entering new territory in which districts and researchers come together on equal footing. Oftentimes, past history necessitates dialogue about how this partnership will be different from what has happened before.
How do we structure the partnership to be responsive to the interests and pressures of partners on all sides?
Research and district partners have different needs. Their organizational cultures, incentives, accountability, and resources are also very different. District and school leaders live in a policy-focused world in which there is pressure to meet students’ needs now. Research often proceeds slowly, and researchers are trained to be cautious in recommending action in the absence of a strong research base. Finding ways to meet needs and expectations requires creative strategies and some give-and-take.
Some of these needs can be addressed through written agreements that specify who owns the research products and when and how districts will be able to respond to research findings. The Consortium for Chicago School Research has a longstanding “no surprises” policy under which key reports are shared with the district before they are made public. This allows the district to prepare a thoughtful response rather than scramble in the middle of a media frenzy. Other Research Alliances have adopted similar policies.
Other issues must be navigated as the partnership develops. The Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) has non-negotiable ground rules to manage differences in interests and expertise. Districts have the final say on the research questions, researchers determine the best methods for studying the questions, and SERP ensures that the work is relevant across districts.
Both sides of the partnership must invest time and effort in getting the collaboration to cohere. Most RPPs suggest that researchers spend much more time on the district’s turf—sitting in on meetings and visiting school buildings to understand the context in which decisions and interventions are happening. For their part, district partners can ease researchers’ access to data and key decision-makers, thereby speeding up the research process and ensuring that key messages are delivered to the right people. The Houston Educational Research Consortium also recommends investing in video-conferencing technology so that partners can hold more meetings, with partners joining by video when in-person meetings aren’t possible.