By Anna-Ruth Allen and Caitlin Farrell
In their February 2015 Phi Delta Kappan article, Marco A. Muñoz and Robert J. Rodosky from Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky offer a valuable school district perspective on how arrangements between research partners and districts can be more or less productive, and how the benefits from these partnerships can be maximized for schools. From the author’s perspective, “research intended to improve teaching and learning – not just the agenda of researchers – can yield powerful results.”
They reflect on several partnerships in their district that have been beneficial, including a codesigned and implemented doctoral program for teachers and administrators at University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development. One goal of the program was to have participating teachers and administrators focus on research-based projects directly relevant for improving teaching and learning in the district. Other successful projects named include: the Strategic Data Project with Harvard Universidy, the 8-year, design-based Middle School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching project with Vanderbilt University, and the Literacy Academy Project with Bellarmine University. These partnerships were long-term collaborations that successfully leveraged research to address persistent problems of practice.
Researchers have much to learn from the experiences and guidance of district leaders like Muñoz and Rodosky. Too often, the authors remind us, researchers have treated districts, schools, and classrooms as “data collection sites,” rather than as partners. Often, researchers’ questions do not map directly onto the work of teaching and learning and the challenges of schools and districts, so work has to be done to find the point of connection between researchers’ goals and interests, and pressing problems of practice locally. One way to do this, Muñoz and Rodosky suggest, is to make sure that all parties are upfront and clear about the fit between the research’s guiding questions and the district’s agenda (e.g., strategic plan). While social science sometimes investigates phenomena that are not the first or most obvious issues on practitioners’ minds, the authors argue is that there must be clear benefit and guidance that comes from research conducted in schools and districts.
Finally, the authors ask researchers to give feedback early and often. They state: “We want guidance for our daily practice. In fact, if given a choice, school districts would prefer less information about the technical accuracy details behind a study and more about the usefulness (i.e. practical implications) of the research. The more clearly and succinctly findings from quality research can be communicated, the more likely they are going to be actionable and benefit students” (p. 46).
The authors also have recommendations for district leaders. They recommend that district creates a “data-access plan” that makes the process of vetting proposals clear and strategic, and aligns with local and federal protections for “vulnerable populations” like students. Ultimately, what that vetting process needs to do is weigh the value of the research against the costs of providing access: “If the burden of data collection outweighs the value of the research, then school systems have the right to decline requests” (p. 43).
Muñoz and Rodosky make a strong case that research-practice partnerships can be a productive strategy for improving schools and districts. They are also clear, however, that it can be difficult for researchers and district administrators involved in partnerships to always anticipate and address the issues they may face in organizing their work together. This article offers a thoughtful consideration about the strategic trade-offs partnerships face and the resources that are required for success from the district perspective. Similar reflections — from researchers, funders, policymakers — will be important to move this conversation forward.