Best practices for effective researcher/district collaboration

Two people sitting at a table
Mariana Preciado
Blog Post

As a funder of a lot of research that takes place within K-12 school districts, we are very aware that there are many competing and sometimes conflicting priorities in this work – the research questions of most interest to the funder, researcher, and actors outside the district (e.g., national or state level consumers such as national nonprofits or state policymakers) and the research questions of most interest to the district and actors connected to the district (e.g., district and school leaders, educators, and parents); timelines that align with the research and timelines that align with the day-to-day processes of the school building; and the best use of the precious resource that is educator time and capacity to support student learning.

To help us become better at considering and managing these varied priorities and ultimately supporting research that will advance better outcomes for all students, especially Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds, over the past few years, members of our K-12 Strategy focused on funding research have been reading and talking with experts to deepen our learning and improve our approaches. Recently, we sat down for a few conversations with Dr. Chris Wohn, Director of Research at Baltimore City Public Schools, and Amiee Winchester, Director of Continuous Improvement at Baltimore City Public Schools, to talk about how foundations and researchers can be more effective partners to districts when working together on research that takes place within the district. Those conversations were so rich that we wanted to document and share what we heard and what Dr. Wohn and Ms. Winchester would emphasize to other funders and researchers seeking to partner with districts.

Lesson 1: Know the district – both when proposing and during the research.

  • When research proposals start without basic understanding of the district’s context (e.g., how many students are there, how many schools, demographic composition), it signals a lack of preparation and respect for the district’s time. This can also slow down timelines to approval and launching the research as it may send researchers back to the drawing board for approaches that won’t work within the district context.
  • Even better than a basic understanding of the district’s context is alignment of the research with current district priorities. One thing funders could consider is supporting more opportunities for researchers and districts to share their priorities in advance of specific research being proposed. This would increase the likelihood of projects that are “win-wins” for both researchers and the participating districts. While this takes extra time that not all district staff will have, it may be worth the long-term benefit and result in research that is more likely to be approved (and be successful).
  • When the research team is staffed by (or even better, led by) those with actual lived experience with the district context (e.g., having a teacher on the team), this builds trust and a greater likelihood that the research will both be implemented in ways that make sense within the district and produce research that is relevant to the district.

Lesson 2: Treat the district as a meaningful partner in the research, not just as an approver.

  • There are practical reasons to meaningfully partner with the district on research. For example, if the district is able to weigh in on and help shape research questions, approaches, and insights, they can help inform research questions that make sense within the district context; ensure that research timelines line up with when participation is most likely and likely to be of highest quality; and aide in the accurate interpretation of data given their expertise. Researchers need to honor the expertise of the districts at all stages of the research process.
  • It’s important to engage the district as a meaningful partner not just up front but in a continuous improvement approach so that the research stays relevant to shifting district needs and context. This requires a point of contact and regular communication routines that clearly specify goals, questions, and requests.
  • In addition to the practical reasons, there are ethical considerations. To engage in research in a district that treats the district only as the location of research is extractive and may leave the participants (i.e., educators and students) with less capacity than they had before the research. In alignment with resources like Chicago Beyond’s Guidebook and the Equitable Evaluation Framework, approaches that diminish district ownership are in direct contradiction with equity goals.
  • Research in the district is most likely to be impactful and relevant to the district when it addresses an actual and current need and can result in “take home” products for the district (e.g., a new tool, assessment).

Lesson 3: Money can’t (always) compensate for the burden on district systems for research participation.

  • Funders and researchers may assume that monetary compensation is sufficient to offset the extractive elements of research in districts. However, things like funding to support short-term capacity to cover data requests can actually do more harm than good by putting burden on systems and leaders to incorporate short-term capacity, do onboarding, and then ultimately lose the capacity once the project is over.
  • Likewise, compensation to individual participants does not “add up” to the overall burden on the district and its systems, especially if the research is not aligned with district priorities.
  • However, longer term support for staff associated with projects, especially when aligned with district priorities, can be helpful and support meaningful partnership with the district.

Lesson 4: Consider sustainability in the design of the research.

  • Turnover and shifting district priorities is a reality for which research needs to account. Research that will take many years to bear fruit is very vulnerable to losing momentum or buy-in.
  • By building distributed engagement (e.g., through a research coalition like the Baltimore Education Research Consortium), shorter term interim measurement, and aligning research and district priorities, researchers can help mitigate this risk.

Special thanks and gratitude to Dr. Wohn and Ms. Winchester for their time, and we look forward to continuing this conversation with our funder, researcher, and district partners.

Mariana Preciado is Deputy Director of Measurement, Learning, and Evaluation on the K-12 Education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Prior to joining the foundation, Mariana was the founding Director of Research & Evaluation at CollegeSpring, a college access nonprofit. Mariana received her B.A. in Psychology from Yale University, and her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from UCLA.