What universities need to conduct useful research in education (opinion)

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In my experience as a policy-oriented academic researcher, the success of researcher-practitioner partnerships depends essentially on two sets of factors. The first involves the reflection, initiative and courage of the practitioners themselves. I have been fortunate to collaborate with inspiring educators who have embraced the design and implementation of deeply controversial innovations as varied as ethnic studies in San Francisco., High-Stakes Teacher Assessment in the District of Columbia, and targeted supports for black boys in Oakland, California. But, more than that, they are also willing to allow independent researchers like me and my collaborators at Stanford University to access their data and study the impact of their innovations, knowing full well that the results may not produce politically practical answers. These vital acts of confidence and courage require district leaders who have a clear mission and a mindset of continuous improvement that goes beyond the short-term political risks of engaging with independent researchers.

The second critical set of factors relates to the supports and incentives that encourage academic researchers to engage in partnerships with practitioners. While many scholars enjoy supporting practitioners in their day-to-day activities, their primary focus and professional success often rests on publishing rigorous and creative research that advances our common understanding of the world. Partnered research can advance these goals, but, in truth, partnership and publishing are often in stark conflict. For example, effective partnership research generally requires much greater investments of time and energy (such as creating and maintaining mutualistic relationships, building systems to securely access data) than, for example, projects that instead rely on readily available secondary data.

Education officials know full well that research findings may not produce politically convenient answers.

Research in partnership can also be exceptionally risky. Researchers know that frequent changes in district direction and priorities can jeopardize their investments in unexpected ways. These costs are especially prohibitive for early-career researchers, who face short, high-stakes evaluation windows to establish their academic productivity and impact.

I have found that targeted investments mitigate these risks and can powerfully catalyze deep and sustained engagement of researchers with practitioners. Cross-partnership initiatives at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, the Stanford/SFUSD partnership, and the Stanford-Sequoia K-12 Research Collaborative) provide a compelling example. Their expert staff foster relationships and knowledge sharing that guide the selection of partnered research that matters to both researchers and practitioners as well as the ultimate use of that research. These initiatives also provide a variety of valuable practical supports such as secure data access and management.

But, make no mistake, institutions like Stanford are in a unique position to make that vision a reality. Although there have been several notable philanthropic, public and institutional investments in researcher-practitioner partnerships or RPPs, these resources are still quite limited and unevenly available in the country’s highly stratified higher education system. That means we’re still forgoing opportunities to connect our country’s powerful research capacity to the massive set of challenges facing schools. This underinvestment both impoverishes the intellectual knowledge produced by our researchers and limits the high-impact, practical advice they can provide to education leaders.

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