After a number of years on the front lines in our respective agencies, we value the ability of RPPs to help us systematically improve our agencies’ work. We believe that students and schools are better served in Tennessee and Massachusetts because of our agencies’ deep participation in shared research projects on our highest priority strategic initiatives. Nevertheless, our experiences leave us skeptical that most RPPs will realize their full potential to deeply integrate research and practice in ways that produce stronger educational outcomes.
This is not because we doubt the intentions of either the researchers or practitioners who are entering into these partnerships with increasing frequency. On the contrary, our agency colleagues are eager to learn about and improve their work through research, and our research partners focus on education policy and programs because they hope their research will make a difference for students and teachers. RPPs offer an opportunity to channel these desires and build productive relationships that improve student outcomes through rigorous, relevant research. Yet, even when both parties enter a partnership with the best of intentions, we have been struck by how difficult it is to make the most of this opportunity.
While partnerships have the potential to move research and practice beyond the status quo, partners are often pressured by their immediate environments toward the opposite: actions or inactions that unintentionally undermine nascent RPPs. Over time, prospective partnerships can quickly degenerate into something that looks a lot like indifference. Academics, working to build upon broader bodies of knowledge, seek data or subjects to interrogate and look for opportunities to use rigorous research methods. Practitioners, knowing that they face constraints outside the scope of the research, plunge forward with the assumption that the research will either validate or help them fine-tune their approach—and, if it doesn’t, they often find reasons to explain away the findings.
We worry that without purposeful effort on avoiding these and other common stumbling blocks, RPPs will go the way of prior attempts to better integrate research and educational practice, such as laboratory schools and action research: viewed as a fad or relegated to the margins of the research and policy discourse. To us, RPPs are too promising to deserve that fate.
In this article, we connect our own efforts and missteps to two theoretical frameworks for understanding and improving the connections between research and practice as a means of illustrating how easy it is for researchers and practitioners to fumble this work. Our goal is to add to the frameworks the specificity of our own experiences in state education agencies. In doing so, we demonstrate the value of these frameworks for describing these complex relationships, offer practical lessons about how attempts at RPPs can go wrong, and provide strategies for overcoming such challenges and engaging jointly in genuine, meaningful partnerships.