A day in the life: Lessons from shadowing a district leader


Paula Arce-Trigatti

Paula Arce-Trigatti

Director, NNERPP

I come from a strictly researcher background when it comes to the practice of K-12 education: while I have had the opportunity to visit schools on a couple of occasions to observe teachers, I have never been at the head of a K-12 classroom, nor have I any experience working in leadership roles at an education agency. In fact, up until Monday, February 6, I had never set foot in a district office.

Sitting in this position then, as director of a national network focused exclusively on research-practice partnerships, I have felt a little bit like a fraud at times. I have read plenty of excellent articles that describe the practitioner side of partnerships (see here, for example), but as we learned in 10th grade while working on our history fair projects, books, articles, and other written documents are second-hand information. If you really want to capture the 

first-place blue ribbon, you need to include at least one source of first-hand information (read: interviews).

I understood the importance of this distinction at the time (although I definitely grumbled about trying to find someone locally who could speak about their experiences on ancient Egypt), as much as I do now. Being able to see things with your own eyes is invaluable; a close second is being able to talk with someone who has experienced it for themselves. While the written word does contain value (cough, cough…like this blogpost…cough), spoken word is interactive, dynamic, animated.

Fortunately in the present case, I was able to do something about it. Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of shadowing Carla Stevens, Assistant Superintendent at the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and key practitioner-liaison for the Houston Education Research Consortium (an RPP between HISD and Rice University, and member of NNERPP). This is not a novel idea by any means but I hoped to see first-hand what it was like to work in a district office of one of the largest school districts in the U.S. (And by the way, yes, there are cubicles. Lots of them.).

In one word, it was illuminating. I cannot stress enough how eye-opening it was. If you are a researcher and there is any possibility of hanging out with a friendly district leader, seize on this opportunity. (Kudos to those history fair folks for trying to emphasize this…!).

Below I share my key takeaways from the experience.   

(1) There is no.time.

From what I could tell, every minute of the workday is accounted for by projects that relate directly to their job descriptions. In other words, they have NO TIME to do anything that is not directly assigned to them. Schedules are packed with meetings and activities that are exclusively tied to tasks related to a particular job role. What this means for researchers hoping to work with a practitioner is something I’ve read in various other places: short, digestible pieces of information that they can quickly turn into knowledge is best. It is highly unlikely they will be able to dedicate much time to reading a traditional piece of research that you float their way, and even more unlikely they will be able to take a leisurely stroll through the literature to see “what’s new” (unless, of course, it’s in their job description).

(2) Research use and organizational structures / cultures may be intimately related.

Research-practice partnerships are often described as a promising way to increase the use of research evidence in practice (e.g., here). While there are multiple efforts underway to measure the veracity of this hypothesis, based on my observations, it is not as simple as: 1. Make a practitioner or researcher friend. 2. Start an RPP. 3. Increase the use of research evidence in practice? Done. (But honestly, nobody thought it would be that easy…right?).

Step three is a very complicated endeavor, for a few reasons: While your new practitioner friend is obviously very open to incorporating research into his or her life, they may be a very small piece working within a much larger ecosystem. Consider that HISD has approximately 30,000 employees across multiple levels of management; organizational processes that enable it to function have been developed over time and are not likely to change quickly (if at all).

Second, the culture itself may not be especially open to change or research use, in general. Directives in this particular district come from the top-down (and this is likely not uncommon). If the top level of administration is either not interested in research or too busy to consult with academic research, it’s not clear that cultural changes initiated from the bottom-up will have much impact.

Lastly, from what I could tell, the current use of research is very sporadic and ad hoc — if there is a current policy that needs to be developed or a program that needs to be evaluated, then research may be consulted in some way.

(3) Understanding how to incorporate each other’s expertise takes effort and time.

This observation (or something very close to it) is certainly yet another one that has been noted in the literature before (see here, here, or here). Typically, though, we hear about the importance of developing trust and building relationships. One thing Carla and I talked about, however, is that her team doesn’t necessarily know how to make good use of their research partners. While many folks within the district have research experience (e.g., PhDs), it is not a given that they will be able to clearly articulate how an external research partner could help them. For one thing, as I learned during my shadowing, you just don’t know what someone else does all day until you see it, nor are you necessarily seeking to change current processes (see point 2 above).

How can the research side of the RPP help?

Rather than overhauling their current procedures (which may happen at some point given sufficient time), Carla and I talked about finding places where the processes they have in place could be “tweaked”:

–Literature reviews

Her team already does lit reviews for reports they have to produce, but Carla mentioned that they are often too long and require a larger time commitment than what she’d like. I suggested having the research arm of the RPP do this for them (i.e., a short list of the most recent, most rigorous, or best quality papers). They really appreciated this idea and further noted that even a short annotated bibliography from which to pull from would be extremely helpful. I think this is one of the rare cases where RPP work is, in fact, mutually beneficial (and not just in service to the other partner). First, it is part of any research paper so it has to get done anyway. Second, it would help the practice side of the team directly. Third, it would enable researchers to “plug themselves” into current work and become more engaged in the district’s processes. Fourth, it could lead to follow-up conversations later, where questions such as “have you answered this question?” or “is this of interest to you?” or “have you thought about doing this?” may pop-up.

–Data collection

In furthering this idea of tweaking the process, I asked Carla’s team if they had considered having a researcher from the partnership sit in on meetings pertaining to data collection initiatives, such as surveys or other similar items. In the very least, the researchers would then be aware of the data collection efforts underway. They (the researchers) might even be able to offer some suggestions of which questions to include, which may then facilitate a follow-up research project. We chewed on this for a bit and then Carla’s team suggested that actually, it would be really helpful if the researchers could help develop the survey itself! Again, this allows the researchers to engage with the practitioners on something that they are already planning on doing, but with the added benefit of helping to shape a future potential research project that would already align with the district’s goals.

–District reports

This one came from Carla directly: they have a mountain of reports that get completed, along with program evaluations that they themselves conduct. At the end of these, they typically offer a line that says “The purpose of this project was X. Future research should examine Y.” But rarely, if ever, are they able to complete the future research proposed. Thus, she thought it might be very helpful to hand this off to their research partners to explore. First, it provides a direct benefit to the district (they will have the future research to cite at some point). Second, it includes the researchers in the process and encourages more frequent discussion of the research agenda. Third, it benefits researchers since a project that is relevant and useful to the district is already defined — perhaps suggestions on future data collection would also be well-received. One could imagine that a follow-up project like this could end up being a dissertation chapter or a master’s thesis, or even an undergrad honors paper, depending on the scope of the question.

Closing thoughts

I am immensely grateful to Carla and her fabulous team for allowing me the invaluable opportunity to follow them around for a day. If you are currently working in an RPP or thinking about working in one, I strongly encourage you to find out if this type of (very fun!) field trip is available to you. And if you have additional thoughts on how researchers can be of better use to practitioners, please let us knowOnwards!