In graduate school, I worked as the liaison for a multi-year federal research study at my neighborhood school. I knew walking to work would be great; what I didn’t know was that—especially after I became a parent—it would reorient my priorities as a researcher. The job required brief visits to the school to drop off or pick up materials and check in on things, occasionally on short notice, and sometimes I would bring the baby with me. She always got a great reaction from the school’s staff, but she also changed how I reacted to the school itself. As I carried her through the halls of the school, I realized that the school was not just any school, but could be her school someday, and that these teachers were not just any teachers, they could someday be her teachers. Consequently, I was not just a researcher, but also a potential future parent of a child who attended the school. My future, her future, and the school’s future were potentially intertwined.
I also realized that I had a second reason to pay attention to the relationship with the school. Many of my peers also lived in the neighborhood and would have liked to walk to work too, and their future opportunities relied on how positive this experience was for the school. In fact, my future opportunities relied on the relationship. The study was intended to extend over multiple years, but the school’s voluntary participation was negotiated one year at a time. Happily, the school remained engaged for the full term of the study and continued to work with researchers. Could we have gotten the data we needed in just a year? Perhaps, but to collect data in the second or third year, we had to prioritize the relationship and make sure the school’s needs were being met. In other words, my personal connection heightened the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with the school, and the long-term goals of current and future research projects made it in our interest to do so.
Why is this relevant? A research-practice-partnership (RPP) like the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) prioritizes the relationship between the researchers and the practitioners. The most important letter in the acronym is the second P, for Partnership. The terms of my engagement as a researcher at my neighborhood school have, if anything, been heightened, since we aspire to conduct research agendas over many years, not just two or three, with the same set of partners. BERC and similar organizations play the long game: our goal is to discover deeper answers to critical research questions in order to improve the lives of children, and this form of understanding can only be achieved over time and with repeated effort. Ideally, these repeated attempts—going back to the same well—will make the results of the research more useful and yield better understandings of social and educational processes. Of course, this long-term commitment is not unique to BERC, even at CSOS. Most of CSOS engages in over many years with a core set of schools (see, for example: the National Network of Partnership Schools, Talent Development Secondary, or Stocks in the Future).
Why might a school district or other local agency commit to an RPP, in Baltimore or elsewhere around the country? For one, participating in an RPP can offer a partner a customized investigation of a pressing problem using local data and state-of-the-art approaches, relatively quickly in the form of a technical report or brief. Moreover, the long-term interests of the researchers in an RPP are aligned and intertwined with those of its partners. The appeal of an RPP from a researcher’s viewpoint is to embark on a vein of research—an agenda that gets ever deeper towards the root of a problem. Each project yields more questions, reveals a new way of approaching the question, and suggests ever more tantalizing investigations. In the context of a long-term commitment, such things are possible. In order to follow through on said long-term commitment, the relationship between researchers and practitioners must be deliberately cultivated.
Prioritizing the relationship is not without its risks. A researcher’s credibility is precious, and one might risk becoming so sympathetic with the research partner as to lose objectivity. It is in no one’s interest for this to happen, since the researcher’s independence benefits all parties. Furthermore, CSOS faculty have to “publish or perish.” Just as our livelihood depends on preserving the research-practice relationship, so does it depend on producing peer-reviewed academic articles. Homegrown evidence that meets the standards of peer-review can have tremendous value for local partners, but it is up to the researcher to translate technical reports or briefs into academic publications and it can be difficult to find the time to pursue that additional step.
For the partnership to benefit all parties over the long haul, all parties must to get what they need. At BERC, we try to develop our research questions by consensus. As Steve Jobs famously noted, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want,” but by the same token academic researchers don’t always know which questions to ask. The best set of questions combines practical wisdom with academic inquiry. Some of the best moments in an RPP are the lucky ones when what was an “academic” question becomes urgently “practical.” It happens more often than one might think, as in Rachel Durham’s ongoing study of the postsecondary outcomes of Baltimore’s graduates (see: A BERC Research-Practice Question: Are High School Graduates Ready for College?). If the researchers can venture a bit afield and scout ahead, such serendipity has a greater chance of happening. As with all scouting missions, they don’t all bear fruit, but they pay off frequently enough to encourage the effort. And the scout must always remember to come home.
As BERC celebrates its first ten years, it has much to be proud of and has proven that it can sustain positive relationships with districts and other partners over the long term.This is a credit to its Executive Director, Faith Connolly. Moreover, BERC has is currently engaged in some of the most ambitious initiatives in its history (see: BERC and the Promise of Research-Practice Partnerships). This is the great promise of an RPP: to engage in exciting, relevant, and sustained work in order to improve the lives of children. To do so, the relationship comes first, followed by the research.