Key Features of Successful Partnerships: Reflections from the TRU-Lesson Study Team

Suzanne Donovan, Executive Director, SERP Institute
Alan Schoenfeld, Elizabeth and Edward Conner Professor of Education, University of California, Berkeley

CADRE invited the PIs of the TRUmath and Lesson Study: Supporting Fundamental and Sustainable Improvement in High School Mathematics Teaching project (Grant Nos. 15033421503454) to reflect on the lessons they've learned from their work at the district level.

What have you found to be key features of successful partnerships between research and development institutions and school districts?

There are four features of partnerships that we consider of greatest importance to their success.


1. Work on a problem of practice the district cares about/requests help with, and provide the kinds of research expertise and support that aim at solutions to the real problems.

To understand the real problems, it is essential to listen with the ears of someone who is humbled by the complexity of education practice, and has respect for the many types of expertise necessary to improve it.

We note that this approach can offer significant challenges and rewards to researchers. On the one hand, standard research methods are unlikely to apply meaningfully to practice without major modifications. On the other hand, researchers are often challenged to develop new methods that expand the capacity of researchers to do work that is meaningful in practice.


2. Provide active support rather than giving direction about what to do.

In one interview after another, school and district administrators expressed appreciation for the people who showed up to carry the burden of the work initially, and to support the development of local capacity over time. Without that support (and sometimes even with it), an initiative will be one more demand on time that is already stretched too thin. Often, in order to support ongoing work, designing tools for practice will be essential. The partnership will have a greater chance of success if it includes expertise in design.

Here too, researchers are likely to find themselves stretched, to their ultimate benefit. Co-designing research lessons, for example, and examining their impact close-up, provides a set of lenses not available when one operates “at a distance.”


3. Pay attention to how the work fits into the larger system so that it has a greater chance of making a difference and of being sustainable over time.

It may be tempting to assume that those working in the school system will worry about how the partnership work will be absorbed by the system, but it can be very challenging for those who work day to day in schools or district offices to see the pond in which they are swimming. This has implications for partnership teams; it’s helpful to have diverse expertise because those best equipped to understand STEM
content are not likely to be the best equipped to understand school systems.

4. Work to build capacity.

If the partnership is successful, it is because the researchers bring knowledge and perspective that was not inherent in the school system. Teams should engage in knowledge sharing, so that the system has greater capacity to continue the work after the formal conclusion of the project.

What strategies have you found to be effective in addressing some of the typical challenges with enacting systems level reform?

1. Staff the partnership, not just the research.

Research practice partnerships are often considered to have two parties—the researchers and the practitioners. But neither researchers nor practitioners have expertise in the other’s line of work, and the incentives in their jobs are such that they do not fail if the partnership fails; Either can point to the other (often justifiably) as the problem. Project staff responsible for the partnership and accountable to both research and practice can keep things from falling between the cracks when pressures mount on practitioners or researchers to attend to their main foci.

2. Set up routine meetings.

District administrators are constantly on the run. Setting a time right from the beginning that fits into their schedule goes a long way. Scheduling time and place around other meetings they must attend (department or cross department level meetings) can make a big difference in consistent attendance.

3. Build trust and keep on their radar screens.

Have structured agendas and ensure that everyone has a voice. There are organizations that support district leaders capacity to run effective meetings, and the evidence of their effectiveness can be seen increasingly in district leaders’ expectation that norms will be established so that every voice is respected, and outcomes for the meeting will be set in advance so that discussion does not go too far off track. Because researchers are so practiced at articulating ideas, it can be easy for these norms to be overrun. Well-planned agendas and a strategy to keep on track can be very helpful!

4. Start meetings with a report on what’s happening in the district and what decisions have been made that are relevant to the work.

District personnel are accustomed to compartmentalizing. It is very natural for them to think of the collaborative work with researchers as something separate from their day to day decision making. It is helpful to prompt district partners to talk about recent developments so that they make the connections, leading to more integrated partnership work over time.

5. Have antennae out for tensions across departments and levels of the system that can undermine the work.

Many districts are “loosely coupled” organizations. Central office leaders, principals, and content area specialists often have competing agendas, which can lead to incoherence and fragmentation of improvement efforts. It can be challenging for teachers and principals to devote adequate time to any initiative. When the partnership meetings are able to include leaders from both the academic and leadership side of the district, and when the interactions of those roles is explicitly attended to, greater progress can be made (especially if the common supervisor— generally the deputy superintendent—plays a role). One must remain vigilant in looking for sources of tension and addressing them preemptively if possible.