There’s no shortage of education research, as the annual gathering of over 15,000 education researchers in New York City earlier this week for the American Educational Research Association’s conference demonstrates. But that doesn’t mean that researchers are always answering the questions teachers and school leaders are asking about their students.
That research-to-practice gap, however, is beginning to narrow as school districts form stronger partnerships with researchers from universities and nonprofit research centers.
Administrators from two school districts — Vista Unified School District (VUSD) in northern San Diego County and the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in Georgia — spoke at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego this week on how working closely with researchers is better informing their teachers’ work even before research findings are completed.
In VUSD, Matt Doyle, assistant superintendent for innovation, said his district’s relationship with the Department of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) began about five years ago when leaders were interested in how to strengthen and expand social networks among teachers. The problem, he said, is that research often gets into the hands of practitioners two to three years after it’s published, and by then, new research is further impacting the field.
Focusing on early-childhood development and brain science in an effort to prevent achievement gaps, the district created a “think tank” environment in which teachers are interacting with researchers from a variety of disciplines focusing on the early years.
“We all co-design these research questions,” said Shana Cohen, an assistant professor at UCSD. She meets with educators once a month to brainstorm what they want to know. Thirteen different projects are currently in progress. “We’re always trying to make it better; we’re always trying to better understand each other,” she said.
In Atlanta, the district received a three-year $900,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation to work with Mathematica Policy Research (MPR) to follow the progress of a turnaround effort in several low-performing schools and then to compare those results to similar schools not participating in the initiative.
In designing the study, Kristin Hallgren, a senior researcher at MPR, said she had to “make sure the plan answered the questions the way APS” needed them to be answered. And because multiple strategies are often being implemented to help low-performing schools, she and the district had to narrow down which efforts to evaluate.
“We’re learning where it’s working and where we need to improve,” said Michael LaMont, the executive director of the Data+Information Group for APS.
Making research a priority
As with any partnership, however, there can be sticking points or issues that get in the way of having a smooth working relationship — which in this case can mean the researchers aren’t able to collect the data they need.
One challenge is ensuring that educators and administrators, who are already pressed for time, have opportunities to interact with the researchers. In VUSD, the fact that Doyle is a “cabinet-level lead” and that working with researchers is part of the district’s strategic plan communicates to the rest of the district that the partnership is a priority, he said, adding that schools had to “clear the table” on professional development to allow the teachers to interact with researchers both during and after school.
LaMont added that they had to work to find a way to get “robust interview data” from principals without taking up too much of their time.
Another challenge is that with data collection, especially about a struggling school or about young children’s development, there are always questions about how the information is going to be used, Hallgren said. Doyle added that in VUSD, he wants to make sure parents are part of the discussion since the research is focusing on child development.
Researchers also have to be careful about how and with whom they share the results of their research, the speakers said. First, on a practical level, studies have a lot of technical details and the researchers have to determine what is the most important information to share, Hallgren said.
Secondly, the results might not be what school leaders want to hear, but LaMont noted that he wants to know what the researchers are finding, whether it’s “good, bad or ugly.” And he added it’s not unusual for improvement efforts to not show progress right away. “When you talk about a turnaround effort, you have to look at multiple years,” he said.
The relationship between researchers and educators can also make it easier to learn from the results, Hallgren said.
“If we do have to deliver bad news, it’s really not,” she said. “It’s helpful news. It’s evidence.”