How to Engage with School Partners? Tips for Researchers from One Project in Maine

By Karen Shakman
October 13, 2017

As education researchers, how do we remain responsive to the needs of our partners while maintaining our role as independent observers?  In July 2016, with funding from the Student Centered-Learning Research Collaborative, EDC began a two-year research project looking into student-centered learning with 10 partner school districts in rural Maine. In addition to what we are learning from the research itself, we made other important discoveries along the way.

Educators in schools are more often than not incredibly open and responsive to researchers. That said, education researchers must engage with schools in a way that allows educators to feel like true collaborators as opposed to “lab rats” being observed. As these professionals have opened their doors to us and endured the intrusions and extractions that come with data gathering and analysis in schools, it only makes sense to respect their time, value and use their expertise, and provide updates along the way. Because our fellow researchers likely encounter similar situations and look for ways to engage substantively with partners in schools, we have several recommendations.

First, when administering a survey, work very closely with each district to prepare. In our case, we met with each district and described the content of the survey, answered their questions, gave them tools for how to communicate with staff and students about it, and helped them establish strategies for effective administration. These additional steps paid off because we averaged an 85% overall response rate. And in several districts, well over 90% of students responded to the survey. This is not a typical outcome, and we attribute this to our atypical partnering approach.

Second, prepare individual reports for each participating school based on the survey results generated by each individual school. In early spring 2017, we met with each school’s principal and superintendent to review and discuss the school’s report. But here again, we didn’t parachute in and simply report. We designed one-hour conference calls to orient the principal and superintendent to the results, to highlight key findings within their reports, and to help them make meaning of the data in ways that would support their improvement efforts. We provided opportunities for the principals and superintendents to reflect on the results with us, and to share what surprised them as well as what affirmed their suspicions about what was happening in their schools. Without exception, each school team told us this was tremendously helpful as they worked with colleagues to make policy and practice decisions in the coming months.

Third, if possible, design and hold a focused workshop with teams from participating schools to review their survey results and consider potential next steps for policy and practice. In our case, we designed the workshop to empower participants to probe specific items. We introduced the “cycle of inquiry,” enabling participants to use its tools with their own survey results. As a result, working alongside administrators and staff from other districts, participants were able to identify themes that cut across the districts. This led the group to their own strategies and discussions about how to conduct subsequent inquiries on their own.

All of these efforts pushed us to take on roles beyond what researchers are traditionally understood to assume. The result is that we are answering not just our research questions but are also generating answers to a big question we think educational researchers everywhere ought to be considering: How can we better work with educators as opposed to working on education issues as we study their implementation? We encourage our colleagues to take this approach, and we hope you’ll reach out to us, and to the staff at the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, if you have any insights about how this crucial work might best be undertaken.

Karen Shakman is a Research Scientist at Education Development Center and co-director of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative study, “Toward an empirically grounded understanding of student-centered learning implementation: Investigating implementation and outcomes.”

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