Erin Baumgartner and Ruth N. López Turley Offer Tips for Planning and Starting a Research-Practice Partnership

December 2022

Erin Baumgartner (left) and 
Ruth N. López Turley (right)

Erin Baumgartner is the director of the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which bridges research, policy, and practice to solve critical problems facing the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area. Ruth N. López Turley is a professor of sociology at Rice University and director of the Kinder Institute. She also founded the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships.

Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs) are long-term partnerships between research institutions and practitioners such as school districts or state education agencies. They are an effective way to increase research use and impact, but they can be challenging to set up and maintain. Below are some tips for those considering this type of community-engaged research.

  • Start small.

Building an RPP takes a lot of time and engagement on the part of both the researcher and the practitioner. Starting with smaller, timely projects that can be completed quickly will help limit the resources needed for both partners and will result in getting findings to practitioners more quickly than with traditional academic research. This short-turnaround, responsive research will demonstrate your true commitment to doing work focused on the needs of practitioners.

  • Be patient.

Trust building takes time, too. In early conversations, districts may not be willing to jump into a research project or hand over their data. They need to understand your purpose in coming to this work and know that you have students’ best interests in mind. Also, districts often have limited capacity to engage in something new. So, to the extent that the process of setting up a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a data sharing agreement (DSA), or research proposal takes a little longer than you’d hope, stay the course. The extra effort at the beginning will benefit both parties in the long run.

  • Be transparent.

Be clear in your motivations driving the desire to set up this partnership. Set up a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and data sharing agreement (DSA) that outline all of the important pieces, including plans for sharing the research. Researchers often think about academic publications as the final product of a research study, but those take time and are of less interest to a district partner. To the extent you are—or are not—willing to develop other types of products (presentations, briefs, etc.) before a journal publication is ready, communicate that at the start of potential partnership conversations.

  • Check in regularly.

Having regular, standing meetings with school district partners can help build connections, particularly in the early stages of developing an RPP. A monthly or bimonthly meeting where you update on project progress, learn about any new district priorities, and develop a plan for upcoming meetings with departments at the district level leads to a stronger partnership.

  • Be humble.

It is extremely important to recognize you’re not the only expert in the room. Always begin meetings with a focus on learning from others, aiming to understand their perspectives, their needs, and their challenges and constraints. Focus on partners’ questions.

  • Acknowledge your limitations.

If you haven't talked about research with non-research audiences, you might need support from the district partner to develop those skills. If there is a topic area where you don't have expertise, it's okay to say that and find the next opportunity to work together. If you do not have capacity to start a project for a few months, discuss that at the beginning of a project rather than having a partner waiting and wondering about the status.

  • Communicate the “why.” 

Explain clearly the benefits of partnering and for whom. Be as specific as possible in describing how partnering will help local students and educators and how partnering will increase the chances of securing funding for implementing efforts informed by research. Develop communication skills that aim to inform broad, non-academic audiences.

  • Bring resources.

Do not show up empty-handed. Bring your institutional resources—people, data, networks, start-up funds, etc. If possible, secure external funding in advance that will enable the work to start as soon as the partnership is formed. The most useful type of funding for RPPs is unrestricted or general operations funding, which is more difficult to secure, but see “Research Lessons From the Pandemic: Why Unrestricted Funding Is Critical to RPPs,” NNERPP Extra, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 2–8.

  • Join NNERPP.

Connect with the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP). With about 60 member partnerships across the nation, this network aims to develop, support, and connect RPPs in education. In particular, check out the RPP Knowledge Clearinghouse, which includes very detailed information about how to launch and maintain an RPP. And the NNERPP Annual Forum is a great opportunity for RPPs to come together and learn from each other.