Coburn, C. E., & Penuel, W. R. (2016). Research-practice partnerships in education: Outcomes, dynamics, and open questions. Educational Researcher, 45(1), 48.

Coburn and Penuel review evidence of the outcomes and dynamics of research-practice partnerships in a variety of fields and then articulate a research agenda for exploring these outcomes and dynamics in the field of education.

Research-practice partnerships “are long -term collaborations between practitioners and researchers that are organized to investigate problems of practice and solutions for improving schools and school districts” (p. 1). “…research on the impact of RPPs in education is sparse and focused on a narrow range of outcomes” (p. 2).

Extant research focuses on the challenges of RPPs, not on the designs or strategies participants in the partnerships use to address those challenges.

Key characteristics of research-practice partnerships: they are long-term, involving a shared, “open-ended commitment to build and sustain a working collaboration over multiple projects” (p. 3) “they focus on problems of practice: key dilemmas and challenges that practitioners face” (p. 3) they are mutualistic, with researchers and practitioners sharing authority and jointly negotiating the direction of the work “they involve original analysis of data,” in which participants collect and analyze their own data along with analyzing existing administrative data, answering key questions (in the case of education, these are usually questions posed by the school district)

Outcomes

Most research in a variety of fields focuses on the impact of interventions that are themselves outcomes of RPPs, rather than on the impact of the RPPs themselves.

Much research points to positive outcomes from RPP-developed interventions, but a lot of RPPs are not subject to any systematic inquiry and thus it isn’t apparent whether or not the success of the interventions is due to their creation as part of an RPP. “…these studies do not address the value of the partnerships themselves, above and beyond the particular innovations they produce” (p. 7)

Evidence suggests that participation in research-practice partnerships leads to greater access to research, but mixed evidence suggests that it is not clear whether greater access to research necessarily leads to greater use of research in decision-making.

Little systematic research investigates the influence of co-design on intervention uptake, or whether participating in RPPs “builds a deeper understanding of the research process or research findings, an appreciation for the value of research to inform decision-making, or capacity to engage in research-informed practices and policies or use research as part of continuous improvement efforts” (p. 8). There is also scant research about unintended outcomes of RPPs.

Dynamics

Most research on the dynamics of RPPs, “how they actually work and the mechanisms by which they foster educational improvement,” relies on first-person reflections of researchers involved in the work written after-the-fact, rather than systematic inquiry conducted simultaneously with RPPs themselves by outside investigators.

What research there is conducted by outside investigators focuses primarily on the challenges participants in RPPs face, including difficulties in communication and expectations, limitations imposed by the organizational realities of school systems, and the politicized environment present in educational organizations.

This research rarely illuminates strategies RPPs use to address these challenges, and almost never addresses both dynamics and outcomes simultaneously.

Research Agenda

Coburn and Penuel suggest the following elements of a research agenda for studying RPPs in education:

  • Outcomes: consequences of RPPs for students, individual & organizational change, use of research, spread & scale of innovation, negative/unintended outcomes, whether RPPS influence the wider field, failed partnerships
  • Comparative studies: how varying designs & contexts impact outcomes
  • Targeted studies of specific strategies: tools, strategies, and routines for addressing challenges
  • Political dimensions of partnerships: whether politics gets in the way of research use, strategies for navigating politicized environments

“With a broader evidence base in both the dynamics and outcomes of RPPs, we can develop a better sense of whether, when, and how RPPs are a viable and effective way for research to support broad and sustainable improvements to educational systems.” (p. 15)

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Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @KimberlyHirsh
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