Developing a Joint Research Agenda: What questions remain?


 

Paula Arce-Trigatti

Paula Arce-Trigatti

Director, NNERPP

I recently had the privilege to attend a convening of NNERPP’s newest member, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA), to discuss, develop, and refine a research agenda specifically tied to one of TERA’s priority research topics: “Reimagining State Support for Professional Learning.” TERA is one of the first research-practice partnerships of its kind, bringing together a state education agency (in this case, the Tennessee Department of Education) and a research institution (Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee). While this progression in the RPP world is uniquely exciting, the event itself was thrilling for me personally as it afforded the opportunity to witness the development of a joint research agenda in action. Although I have heard about the procedures used by some of our partnerships to lay out upcoming plans (see, for example, here), as with many things in life, there is no substitute 

for first-hand experience. Here I share some of my key takeaways from the meeting, along with several remaining unanswered questions for us to collectively think about as we continue to navigate through these domains.

(1) It’s important to have small, targeted discussions that include multiple viewpoints and a variety of stakeholders.

Approximately 50 people attended the convening, consisting of internal (to Vanderbilt) and external researchers, teachers and practitioners from around the state, and policymakers from the Tennessee Department of Education. This larger group was then broken up into smaller teams of around 8 people featuring folks from each of these units, which were then led through brainstorming, discussions, and decisions.

I had the chance to serve as a facilitator in a few of the breakouts, and can speak first-hand about the importance of having these smaller, diverse working groups

tackle specific deliverables. For example, our first task during the meeting was to identify problems of practice around professional learning in Tennessee. Each member of the team brought very specific expertise to the exercise: teachers and practitioners spoke to what was happening in classrooms, policymakers shared intentions or goals behind related policies, and researchers described findings or theories to shape the conversation further. Additionally, because there was diversity in viewpoints (i.e., teachers came from multiple grade levels and practitioners included principals), the complexity of problems were more fully represented. I was amazed at the depth of conversation that took place with folks that had only known each other for about 30 minutes!

(2) Did I mention multiple viewpoints? Specifically, teachers are key.

I think the importance of having teachers actively participate in the conversation cannot be underscored enough. They bring much insight to the discussion, especially because they are closest to the learning (with the exception of the students, which raises questions about what their roles might be in this as well…). Teachers will additionally be instrumental in any post-research implementation that occurs. Having regular, open lines of communications with them will most likely improve support for these efforts.

(3) What happens after the meeting is over?

After such a fantastically executed meeting leading to a virtual treasure trove of research questions and projects, TERA will have their hands full prioritizing and completing the work. In the meantime, I offer the following questions for us to consider.

–How do RPPs keep practitioners engaged long after the meeting?

I heard many teachers/practitioners in attendance express gratitude and enjoyment at being included in the research agenda development process. They additionally worried, though, that this inclusion was a “one-time” deal.

How can RPPs maintain meaningful connections with practitioners, when the group of practitioners includes the entire state, in this case? How often should communications go out to them? What channels are best to not fall off their radars? Is the answer different for teachers versus principals?

–What is the role of external researchers that are not specifically a part of the RPP and when should their collaboration begin?

Several RPPs in our network (see here, here, and here, for example) leverage expertise from outside researchers in order to expand capacity.

What is the best way for RPPs to take full advantage of these extra teammates? Can anyone join the external team or should it be limited to those participating in current networks? At what point in the existence of the RPP should they be included? What resources are needed to facilitate this type of collaboration? How should alignment with the research agenda be maintained?

–What communications around the research agenda are important and to whom is it important?

This is a question, but perhaps it really falls under a recommendation. I find that posting a research agenda on the partnership website is very useful, especially for those interested in learning more about the research being conducted at the RPP (see here, here, and here, for example). Not only does it help organize the publications and policy briefs that will surely follow the research, it can potentially spark connections with others interested in doing work in similar areas. Furthermore, it provides a small level of accountability for the partnership to demonstrate their progress to external stakeholders.

Conclusions

I had a wonderful time at the TERA convening, making new friends but also being granted a tremendous learning opportunity to better understand how developing a joint research agenda within an RPP works in practice. Going forward, my hope is that I am able to participate in more of these — learning by doing is an irreplaceable teacher and I would love to be able share the knowledge with all of you. Onwards!

New year, new goals? RPPs and planning for success


 

Happy new year, everyone! I hope the ushering in of 2017 went smoothly for you and brought with it much joy. As is typical during these exciting early days of a new year, many of us set out a list of resolutions, goals, or intentions to guide our actions for the coming year. (Given that it is already January 6, hopefully you haven’t fallen off the track just yet!). NNERPP is no exception, as I’ve spent the last few weeks reflecting on

all of our accomplishments in our first full year of existence, and enthusiastically planning for the many projects we have in store for year 2 (stay tuned…).

This exercise is particularly useful for assessing the previous year’s activities to determine what degree of “success” has been accomplished; on the other hand, it can also help clarify where new goals should lie. Because NNERPP has four main objectives that guide its work, this is a relatively straightforward task. In the case of research-practice partnerships, however, how should we go about this opportunity? What activities should be assessed to gauge “success”? What types of goals are appropriate for a new year?

The question of “success” or how to measure “effectiveness” regarding RPPs has been raised in the literature recently, and we’ve seen it be an ongoing topic of conversation throughout 2016. While answers remain elusive, it is becoming increasingly important for partnerships to consider this aspect of their operations, as it directly affects the health of the organization. We explored this topic at the 2016 NNERPP Annual Forum back in August and talked about some of the challenges.

One of the key concerns that surfaced was noting the multiple objectives that guide the work of an RPP, given the different roles of those working within the partnership (i.e., researchers, practitioners, policymakers, postdocs, and so forth). For example, during our discussions, practitioners were more likely to suggest that positively impacting student outcomes should be a top priority for the RPP. The researcher group, though, shared that a top priority for them was ensuring that research was actually used to make decisions.

Should both objectives be considered in an overall schematic intended to measure RPP success? Perhaps, although both suffer from measurement challenges albeit for slightly different reasons. Impacting student outcomes, while a highly valuable and important goal for a partnership, can be difficult to connect to partnership work directly, given the large number of parameters at play influencing education policy in general (see here, for example). In terms of measuring research use in practice, research suggests that districts’ use of evidence is “complex and at times messy.” Liz Farley-Ripple, co-director of the IES-funded Center for Research Use in Education, further details four challenges to measuring the use of research evidence in practice.

In addition to measurement challenges, both of these objectives likely require a longer time frame in which to assess progress. So what might an RPP focus on in the meantime? In a survey administered to participants prior to the 2016 NNERPP Annual Forum respondents indicated that building trust and cultivating relationships were the most important factors for ensuring a productive partnership. These goals, while not specifically indicative of whether or not the RPP is itself successful, are imperative for “greasing the wheel,” so to speak. In the absence of efforts to build trust or relationships across the different roles of the partnership, the work itself will most likely be adversely affected and thus, larger objectives will not be met.

How should one go about improving trust and relationships, then? From our conversations with NNERPP members, we hear several mention the importance of opportunities for repeated interactions and further, the development of new systems or routines to engage multiple stakeholders. A shared respect for all partners is also key, as is the recognition of the varied expertise brought by all of those working in the partnership. We’d also like to share the following resource for those looking to refine their facilitation skills (a special thanks to Laura Wentworth of the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership for passing it along!): Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner.

We will continue to work together to develop measures of effectiveness going forward; in the meantime, we hope these will give you a starting point from which to launch your reflection of 2016’s RPP activities and your upcoming partnership goals for 2017. Onwards!