Conversations with NCRPP: How can Research-Practice Partnerships Support Educational Leaders’ Use of Research?

Sep 20, 2016 | Research on RPPs


Caitlin Farrell

Caitlin Farrell

Director, NCRPP

Note: We’re cross-blogging in September with NCRPP and NNERPP! Read below for how partnerships can play an important role in research use in education. Head over to the NCRPP website for Paula’s report on the recent NNERPP annual forum.

The National Center for Research in Policy and Practice studies how educational leaders—including school district leaders and principals—use research when making decisions and what can be done to make research findings more useful and relevant for those leaders. Earlier this year, we released findings from our survey of 733 educational leaders in the nation’s mid- and large-sized school districts. Together, the findings create a portrait of district work where research-practice partnerships can play a critical role.


District leaders viewed research as valuable, credible, and relevant. Respondents reported very positive attitudes about the value of educational research, with nearly all endorsing the ideas that research can address practical problems and that researchers provide a valuable service to educational practitioners. Leaders endorsed the idea that research is relevant to practice, but indicated that the time lag between conducting and publishing research can decrease its usefulness.

District leaders used research to inform decisions, expand understanding, and persuade others. Respondents most commonly reported instrumental use of research. Common forms of instrumental use were to design professional development for teachers and administrators and direct resources to programs. With respect to conceptual use, 71% of respondents indicated that the research they encountered had expanded their understanding of an issue. Among the symbolic uses presented to respondents, leaders most frequently reported using research to convince others or using research selectively to support a decision.

Networks matter for access to research. We asked leaders to select from 14 different sources where they obtained research relevant to their work. Leaders were most likely to access research through professional associations and professional conferences. Leaders were less likely to access research through individual researchers or from stand-alone websites, like the What Works Clearinghouse or the National Center for Education Statistics. Opportunities to interact with other professionals and/or researchers around research-based ideas seem to be quite important.

Across survey results, we see an appetite for research from educational leaders, particularly research that is timely and relevant to the district context. There are a range of different activities where research can be brought to bear within the flow of district work. Access to useful research seems to be a social phenomenon.

If this is the state of affairs for educational leaders, we see a promising role for partnerships between researchers and practitioners. Research partnerships engage in joint research and development activities with practitioners. Rooted in districts’ identified needs, the research efforts may be seen as more usable and actionable. It may also be more credible to local practitioners and policymakers because it was done with their students and their local conditions. The research developed out of the partnership can fit the local needs, whether it be related to curriculum selection, design of professional development, or creation of new policies. The partnership may also provide a needed infrastructure to support the social side of research use, enabling research ideas to flow between trusted partners.

Caitlin Farrell is Director of the National Center of Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP). See here for more on NCRPP or here for additional survey findings.