Reflections from a Research–Practice Partnership

A Three-Pronged Approach to Fostering Strong Collaborations

Diverse staff collaborating at white board
By Kelly Granito, Cassie Wuest

Practitioners from a range of human services fields often rely on research to inform their efforts and achieve their desired outcomes. At the same time, research must be applicable if it is to be helpful to practitioners. While practitioners and researchers may aspire to work together in an effort to strengthen and improve both of their efforts, this type of reciprocal relationship can be difficult to master. Such relationships, known as research–practice partnerships (RPPs), are long-term, joint endeavors between researchers and practitioners that, through sustained collaboration, are designed to improve practitioners’ effectiveness through research that is both rigorous and relevant for the field. One of the challenges that RPPs confront is the need for both members of the partnership to be flexible and adopt a collaborative mindset while remaining focused on the partnership’s mutual goals. To that end, the literature about RPPs has highlighted the importance of partnerships in which both partners (1) codesign the research study, (2) learn from each other, and (3) share responsibility for the success of the partnership.

This Issue Focus highlights how the continuing partnership between MDRC, a nonprofit social and education policy research organization, and Blue Engine, an organization that works with school systems to ensure that all students thrive, pursued these three aims.

The MDRC–Blue Engine Partnership

MDRC has collaborated with Blue Engine as a learning and evaluation partner since 2021. During the first phase of their work together, which ran from fall 2021 to summer 2022, the two partners worked closely together to build a “theory of action” to guide them through their partnership activities. They began by refining and documenting the key components of Blue Engine’s school-based support model of co-teaching teams and teacher support from coaches, and describing the anticipated teacher and student outcomes, including teachers’ improved confidence in their ability to help all students learn, as well as actual improvement in doing so, and students’ improved achievement on regional assessments. Next, they developed a performance-measurement framework that articulated data sources and measures that Blue Engine could use to monitor the implementation of its model in participating schools.

In the subsequent phase of their work together, the partners codesigned and launched a one-year implementation study of Blue Engine’s model in the 2022‒2023 school year. The goal of the implementation study was to document the conditions under which schools implement Blue Engine’s model and the extent to which its support is being delivered to and experienced by teachers in a sample of eight Blue Engine schools spread across Louisiana and New York City.

Pursuing the Three Collaboration Goals

During the initial stages of their work together, MDRC and Blue Engine pursued the three approaches listed above to meet the overall goals of the study and promote a positive, productive partnership. What did their efforts look like in practice?

Codesigning the research study. When designing a study, direct practitioner involvement can help ensure that the questions and topics that are explored are relevant to both the specific partner organization involved in the study and other organizations that have similar objectives. For example, as MDRC built a theory of action, Blue Engine worked with MDRC’s team through successive iterations by specifying the essential components of its program model, explaining how each component informed related activities, and recommending desired outcomes. Without Blue Engine’s involvement in developing the theory of action, MDRC risked creating a research agenda that did not fully account for Blue Engine’s primary activities as well as critical school-based actors, such as administrators, who help ensure that teachers buy into Blue Engine’s coaching and anticipated classroom activities. Additionally, as they geared up for the implementation study, MDRC and Blue Engine cowrote a study-design plan that included research questions and data-collection responsibilities for both organizations.

The plan specified that MDRC would collect and analyze qualitative data through interviews with teachers at the participating schools, Blue Engine would collect and analyze teacher survey data, and MDRC would synthesize the findings across both sources. The two organizations worked together to generate and refine the research questions, to help increase the likelihood that the answers to those questions would be relevant for Blue Engine. Working together to design the study meant that MDRC and Blue Engine could use research methods and timelines that aligned with Blue Engine’s needs while maximizing opportunities to gather data that could provide direct answers to the study’s research questions. This joint approach allowed Blue Engine to use the interviews to gather information about teachers’ experiences navigating changes of co-teaching partners—a topic that, while not central to the study’s overall research agenda, was of interest to Blue Engine for its own improvement purposes. Building this topic into the interview protocol allowed MDRC to produce this information for Blue Engine as the researchers were learning about it.

Ensuring that both organizations learn from each other. When handled well, the dynamic of a research‒practice partnership sees information and learning flow both ways between the organizations, rather than strictly from the researcher to the practitioner, which is commonly the case in more traditionally structured research projects. For example, while developing the performance measurement framework, MDRC helped Blue Engine think about how to measure implementation fidelity—that is, how closely the implemented program follows the original model—while Blue Engine contributed its knowledge of common implementation challenges related to co-teaching to help MDRC define reasonable thresholds for those fidelity measurements. Additionally, as data were analyzed, MDRC and Blue Engine came together to review and reflect on insights gleaned from MDRC’s interviews with teachers and Blue Engine’s survey fielding, helping one another make sense of the findings from both data sets and put them into proper context. Together, they could then theorize what those findings could mean for possible refinements to the program model.

Shared responsibility for success. While all research studies face challenges, the shared ownership inherent in this partnership allowed MDRC and Blue Engine to overcome a number of those challenges efficiently. For example, during the implementation study year, the school-based model worked somewhat differently in each school. Among other differences, some schools had co-teaching teams of three (rather than teams of two, as specified in the model), and in some schools Blue Engine coaches had already been working with co-teaching teams for multiple years and had had a chance to modify their coaching practices to account for those teachers’ experiences with Blue Engine’s model. Before MDRC conducted the teacher interviews, therefore, the Blue Engine coaches had planning calls with MDRC’s research team to help them understand the context of each school, so they could conduct more nuanced interviews. In addition, MDRC and Blue Engine worked together to navigate logistical challenges, such as teachers’ scheduling constraints. To address such challenges, in some cases Blue Engine coaches reworked their own scheduled time with teachers so that teachers would be available to be interviewed.

What’s Next?

MDRC and Blue Engine have worked closely together to use three collaborative approaches to research–practice partnerships that serve both the research and Blue Engine’s continual development. These approaches can support Blue Engine in its goal to build evidence about the effectiveness of its program model and, ultimately, to help all students thrive. Blue Engine and MDRC are discussing possible next steps for codesigning an impact study that would assess the model's effectiveness.

Document Details

Publication Type
Issue Focus
February 2024
Granito, Kelly and Cassie Wuest. 2024. “Reflections from a Research–Practice Partnership.” New York: MDRC.