Creating Research-Practice Partnerships in Education

William R. Penuel & Daniel J. Gallagher

241 pages, Harvard Education Press, 2017

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Most schools of education train teachers and administrators. But in the 1970s and ’80s, education schools at several elite research universities retreated from that central mission and sought to boost their reputations by hiring faculty members from the social sciences who focused more on research than practice. As a consequence, many research-oriented education schools came to be considered redundant with social science departments. One of the most prominent, at the University of Chicago, was closed altogether.

In more recent decades, greater pressure from policy makers and the public for improvements in K-12 education has motivated researchers to return to studying practice and education leaders to seek research on how to improve student outcomes. But few administrators and researchers have a great deal of experience bridging their two worlds. So Creating Research-Practice Partnerships in Education could not be timelier.

The authors’ own collaboration emulates the research-practice partnerships (RPPs) they describe. William Penuel, currently a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, is a well-regarded scholar who has worked closely with schools and districts. Daniel Gallagher, now director of career and college readiness at Seattle Public Schools, is a district administrator with experience collaborating with researchers. They are, thus, in an excellent position to tell the story from both perspectives.

The book draws a clear distinction between true partnerships and other forms of collaboration. Districts often contract with researchers for their own purposes, such as to evaluate a program or intervention, and researchers may conduct studies in districts that are not particularly interested in their work. Partnerships, on the other hand, have three defining qualities. First, district personnel and researchers work collaboratively to define the problem. Second, the collaboration meets each partner’s needs. And third, the partners jointly develop tools and strategies for accomplishing their shared goals. Partnerships, the authors stress, are “not a one-way street from research to practice but rather a relationship in which each party strongly influences the other, as in a healthy long-term relationship between two individuals.”

Penuel and Gallagher provide much more than general guidance. Through anecdotes, case studies, and direct instruction, they use their own and others’ experience to provide practical pointers in extraordinary detail, right down to illustrative scripts for proposing a partnership, a sample agenda for an initial meeting, and a template for deciding priorities. For those just considering undertaking an RPP, they describe the benefits without papering over the challenges. Others already engaged in RPPs will find useful guidance for sustaining them and improving their effectiveness.

Today, many researchers underestimate the value of working in real education settings, seeing it as a service rather than an opportunity to develop and fine-tune theory. They also worry that negotiating with administrators will weaken their research designs. True, it is difficult to achieve the gold standard of research rigor when working in schools. But partnering with educators can produce knowledge that is more useful in the real world than tightly controlled experimental studies. To illustrate these points, the authors offer examples of successful RPPs such as the Baltimore Education Research Consortium—a collaboration between the Baltimore City Public Schools, Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and several Baltimore nonprofits—whose diverse board ensures that research is both “relevant (community input) and rigorous (researcher input).”

One insight such partnerships yield is that interventions to address specific problems cannot be developed without considering the larger system of policies and practices in which they exist. For example, changing the curriculum without considering the available resources for teachers can end up frustrating those teachers and making instruction worse. In my own experience, researchers in a long-term partnership are more likely to understand how a particular change fits into the larger web of policies and practices in the district, and to help design it successfully and in a way that can be scaled up.

Still, RPPs and the innovations they produce are vulnerable and often disappear because of changes in district leadership or political pressures. Given these concerns, the authors emphasize the role of trusting relationships and effective communication, and they encourage researchers to report results regularly and in a format that is accessible and useful to their education partners. Such information sharing is important to convince practitioners of the value of collaborating even when it involves considerable added work.

The book ends with a realistic but upbeat appraisal of the future of RPPs. It notes the many hurdles: Researchers are not typically rewarded for work that is problem-focused rather than theory-driven; education research funding is modest and disbursed in small sums that make long-term commitments difficult; educators are under pressure to find quick fixes rather than solutions that are developed through an iterative process. Most important, researchers and educators usually are not trained to work effectively with each other. But the authors conclude that all of these obstacles can be overcome, and they prove their point through their many inspiring examples of RPPs that have thrived.