EdFix Episode 10: The Research-Practice Partnership Advantage

TRANSCRIPT

ELIZABETH GRANT:
What happens in a research partnership? It's an actual partnership between practitioners and researchers to answer the problems that practitioner face.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Welcome back to EdFix, your source for insights about the practice and promise of education. I'm Michael Feuer. I have two great guests in the studio with me. Ruth Wattenberg, school activist, education reformer, education policy wonk, and a 30-year resident of Washington, D.C., and recently re-elected as a member of the D.C., District of Columbia State Board of Education.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Liz Grant is a professor on the faculty at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Associate Professor of education with quite large and diverse array of prior experiences in other research institutions. In schools, in universities, and as a policy advisor in the highest offices of the Department of Education.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Welcome Ruth and Liz. I would like to ask each of you to say a couple of sentences about what is the most pressing issue on your minds today about education in America?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I started in this business 35-some years ago and I worked for Albert Shanker, the American Federation of Teachers, and he sort of set me on this path. The path was what was then called Standards Based Reform and Education, education reform, and trying to help raise the level of achievement in the country. Especially among our poorest kids, our lowest achieving kids, and we've done a million things since then and we still have that challenge. How do we reform the reforms to address the problem that we started with?

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Liz Grant is a professor so she gets to think about these issues from the hallowed Halls Of academe, but say a little bit about background, Liz, so that people know that you bring, not just your formal knowledge from a little place in Palo Alto called Stanford University, but a lot of other relevant experience too.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
There are two things, in addition to my schooling that inform the way I think I look at things and view them now as a professor, and one is having been in schools for over a dozen years. I was a school teacher in middle school and high school, and then I was an elementary school principal. So have that background, a long background of practice. Then I had the chance to work in policy here in D.C. at the U.S. Department of Education and also on the Hill in a senator's office for a short time.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
So, have seen how research does or doesn't get translated into policy and what policy ends up meaning for practice and the complications in that. I think I would second what Ruth was saying about the achievement gaps and performance, the unequal performance, and the unequal distribution of opportunities and resources, and accessibility around the country.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Add to that, and maybe we don't want to get into a more future looking point here, but we're at a crossroads that we're just beginning to recognize in terms of what the future holds for work and for society and what our schools look like and what they're preparing people for. And how we have to, I believe, start to rethink structures and processes of schooling that will upend typical institutions over time. That's sort of a longer term thing, but I am worried that we're not thinking enough about how to educate people for lifelong learning.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Let's talk a little bit about research. Why is it so hard to get the results from education research into the minds and hands of educators?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
There's a couple things. I think Ruth embodies more of what we need at the community level, which is very skilled advocates and policymakers. There is no reason that policy is kept to the few, except that policy is power and so we tend to keep it to the few, but we can educate people. We can demystify the policymaking process, and bring more people in. And create more of a democratic voice in the actual construction of policy and the decisions that we're making this way.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
What Ruth has done in her work as an advocate around, particularly these days, the research partnership work in D.C., is amazing. There is a reason it's even being considered in the city council and Ruth, along with others that have been fighting this battle for a long time, is one of the reasons it happened.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
It is the community and the stakeholders that engaged on this that made it happen. This will be a big deal for Washington, D.C. and it's a heavy lift that happened because they pushed hard and knew how to do it and they had some skill as well as the passion and interest in it.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I need you to backtrack here just for a bit and talk a little bit about this phrase, "Research, practice, partnership." Why is that such a cool idea?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Well, I'm going to go at it in two ways. One, is not so long ago... Well you know D.C. moved to a mayoral control system a while ago and one of the things that the city council called for was a report on how things were going five years into it. Eventually, not quite five years into it, there was such a report, handled by the National Academy of Sciences, and one of the findings was we don't have access to a huge amount of information about whether or not this is working.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
We meaning people in decision making roles in the system.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
The researchers from the National Academy of Sciences, who are actually trying to do this report about, "Well, how well is mayoral control doing? How well are the schools doing," couldn't get the data they needed to make much of a conclusion about what was going on. That was, I would say, part A of why there's been a lot of interest in a research practice partnership.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
It was sort of we need to know stuff that we don't know, and the Academy Report called for something like that. The other piece is, I think, I'll use the Chicago Consortium model because everybody does, it's just a terrific way of understanding the extent to which what you're trying to do is happening. That's, I think, the huge piece about an NRPP, or a research practice partnership, here in D.C. we're doing so many things.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
We are the laboratory for almost every educational innovation in the country. We are the lab. Our kids are in those labs, and we're not finding out what's working and keeping that and finding out what's not working so well so that we can fix it. That's a problem. To me, that's why we want to have this.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I'll give you an example. In Chicago, they did a study at some point about promotion. The 3rd Grade Gates, and if you didn't pass. If you weren't at the right reading level at third grade, you couldn't go forward and a lot of people thought, "Wow, that's a great thing." It turns out that actually, it was a great thing for some kids because in some schools they had the resources to make sure those kids would reach that Gate and pass.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Those kids did better than they might have in a different situation, but the kids in the schools where they didn't have those resources, they didn't pass the Gate. They got retained and it was worse for them. If nobody went to look at that, you could keep going with that kind of policy forever and I worry that we may have some policies like that here in D.C.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
The idea of research being useful in policy and practice, of course, predates the development of these so-called partnerships. Isn't that why you went to Graduate School essentially to become a researcher oriented to policy and practice? What kind of Grand Canyon gaps did you have to cross over to build that bridge?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I think also I was informed by my experience in policy and the challenge of creating policy based on research, when that Grand Canyon sized chasm is in between the two of them. There are a couple things and one, again, I think more people involved in policy and more people understanding how to use research and how to use data in crafting policy. Also is the two-way street, as Vivian Tseng says, of the WT Grant Foundation. Policy makers are using research but researchers are looking to policy and practice and being informed by that so creating more of the two-way street. Which is what happens in a research partnership, it's an actual partnership between practitioners and researchers to answer the problems that practitioner face.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I think it gives the picture of what's going on. When I was a school principal, I had a great colleague who said, "When you're sitting with a parent, don't sit across the table from them and have the problem sitting there in the middle between you, sit next to them and look together at the problem that's sitting on the table."

ELIZABETH GRANT:
That's how I think of what the research partnership can bring to the conversations we're having in D.C., a Common understanding of the picture of things in D.C., What's happening? How it's going and how it's going for different groups of kids across the city? Then we sit there together and start trying to come up with the solutions and in that is another way to just bring the gap a little closer.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Are we doing better generally, in America, in terms of facilitating a mutually respectful set of relationships between researchers and the people who are elected or appointed to make decisions that can be informed by the research?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
In the recent research on the return on investment of early money into early childhood education has been the thing that spurred the changes. Has been the thing that is said to D.C., "If we have money to spend, we're going to spend it on this early childhood education. We really think that matters." That was very research based.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
There are these grand ideas that are informed by research and shaped by research. Then are the umbrella under which people make decisions. More targeted policy about particular aspects of how to arrange schools in D.C.? How to instruct in classrooms? That requires more targeted research.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Some of these institutional connections between a university, and a state board of education, or a deputy mayor, or the state office. Those sorts of institutional arrangements I think facilitate that kind of bridge.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
I agree with that, but I also worry and I think that's a perfect example that we use research to say, "Wow, it works. This is the magic bullet. [crosstalk 00:11:20] We've done it."

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Yeah.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
I think about early childhood and you guys follow the literature better than I do, but you've got some great stories of putting early childhood in and has a big impact on. You have stories now of states that put it in and actually it doesn't have a big impact.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Yeah.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
We need to understand why it works sometimes and why it doesn't work sometimes. We need to learn those lessons. We need to learn them fast because if we don't, pretty soon there's going to be a push back that says, "Oh look, it didn't work here in state A," and it will be our fault because we didn't understand why it worked in state B and not A and fix it.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
How much evidence from research do you need of the sort that can get people to say, "Okay, we may not know this definitively permanently for all kids everywhere at the same time into perpetuity, but we know enough to say this is a worthwhile strategy." Why do we have that problem in education?

RUTH WATTENBERG:
To use the early childhood example? I mean I think people do feel like there is evidence, we know that it works sometimes. I mean we have both theoretical knowledge about why that would be and we have evidentiary knowledge that it does. People have stepped up and said, "The standard is meant we're going to pay for it."

RUTH WATTENBERG:
That's a political question. It's a combination of you need the evidence and you need the politics to sort of say, "It's worth doing," but I'm going one... And I'm glad that happens and we shouldn't demand so much evidence that we can never do anything, but once we have the decision to go forward and the dollars to go forward with it, we need to understand how to do it best. [crosstalk 00:13:03] because otherwise you end up with a fad.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
People say, "Oh, early childhood education," but what we can know for sure is you could for sure set up schools to do early childhood education and not have very good success.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
That's true.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
We need to be able to be clear about what is possible, therefore what are we expecting? If we're not getting to that why so we can fix it.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
There's always a downside of using research. It can be weaponized to back a particular opinion or another, which is always problematic and we have to watch out for, but it shouldn't step us back from using research. I think the question is not how much research because I'm not sure beyond a certain quantity. There's a how much question?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I think instead it's how long? I think it's a timeframe. I think we build a preponderance of the evidence and then it changes the way we think. Once we change the way we think we change the way we behave. This sort of early childhood evidence has been growing since the 1970s and it's only now that we're actually putting money behind it in a way that matches up with the evidence.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
By the way, what is the main sort of research question about early childhood education?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Today?

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Well, you said it started in the 1970s whenever. What was the main question that we're asking? Does it make a difference.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Can early childhood make a difference in addressing inequality in unequal outcomes for children? So there was the Perry Preschool model, the Abecedarian Project, those early very high quality preschool programs. This as what Ruth is kind of talking about that not any old preschool program works. These were exceptional, but the return on investment for those children as they make it into their 20s and 30s is coming to the fore now. It's stunning.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I mean, the cost to society are so much less when we have paid at the beginning of their life trajectory than at the end. Then there's this question too. I looked at this research in a multi generational way when I was looking at wealth and family status, and its impact on outcomes. There's a multi generational question here.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
You have people in their 20s and 30s who are doing better in society. Their children and grandchildren maybe better off as well. I don't know if it's just cause I'm aging and I'm looking at longer time frames, but there has to be something hopeful in seeing progress. Even if we aren't seeing it now, even if we aren't seeing it tomorrow.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
How do you square the requirement for time and money that research needs with the fact that the communities that are most in need of the results don't have a lot of time to wait around?

RUTH WATTENBERG:
When something is good enough. There's plenty of things that are good enough that they should be in place. Whether it's the early childhood education, or the community of the schools that we're talking about, or the reading instruction, or the need for a broad curriculum, et cetera, et cetera. There's a lot of things that we do know need to be happening and they should be happening.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Good enough.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
They should be happening but I would still get back to, but sometimes they're not.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Yeah.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
That's part of what I find... I don't want to just say you know, curious about interesting because we are talking about something that's so urgent, but it is a really big question. Is we know these things. The principals largely know them, we all know them and yet we also know they're not happening in the ways that we wish they were at the levels that we wish we were.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
You guys have both been in this for quite some years. I'm not going to try to under or overestimate how many years you've been involved in this work. Say something about when did you decide this was going to be your life path?

RUTH WATTENBERG:
I grew up right outside of D.C., a block over the border in Maryland. My first passion really was the labor movement and I was a union organizer. That's really the first work that I ever did and I got to the American Federation of Teachers because I was going to be a union organizer. That's was my path.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
It really was to go back to what I talked about at the very beginning, Al Shanker sort of saying, "Our union has to be about more than just organizing more teachers and making sure they can have middle-class lives. It has to be about improving the schools because that's what our members want." That's how I sort of got pulled into education.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
From there then I was working with our teachers on how to... Helping to put together training programs that would help teachers be better teachers. Trying to put together programs to help teachers and unions promote policies that were going to promote better schools.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
Part of that was research and we set up at the AFT, this is a little before me, I can't take credit for it. The Educational Research and Dissemination Program, which really was about getting some of the early reading research, some of the early research around behavior, and bringing teachers together to look at the research and among themselves, try to figure out what would that look like in implementation. Then people could come back and talk about how worked. It's an early RPP in a way.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Yeah.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Liz, I know it's not yet considered a suburb of Washington, D.C. but I think you grew up in Utah.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
That's right. That's right, not too close to here. I love these stories of how people got into education because we come at it from different perspectives. I think we stay in it because of issues of inequality and our desire to address.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
And it feels like you can move...

ELIZABETH GRANT:
And it feels like education is a lever that way. I didn't go into education because of my experience in public schools growing up. I fell into it almost by default and tried it and decided I liked teaching and then stuck with it. Every turn in my career I've stuck with education. Though have considered other things, other ways to move forward, but again, it is the lever, like Ruth said, of that I think addresses equity issues and in a way that can matter. That's what I want to be about.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
When you started back as a more or less, I suppose, full time graduate student in education. By then you had already taught?

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I had been in schools for 13 years. Yes.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Yeah.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I taught school. I taught in a juvenile justice lockup shelter. I taught in an alternative high school in Boston for behaviorally and emotionally disturbed students. I taught in private schools, I taught in public schools, and I had been a principal in public schools. Then decided looking out around at schools in the conditions in which schooling happened and recognizing that I wanted to be about changing those conditions under which schooling happened, not just the schools themselves. So I wanted to start to get involved in the policy conversation.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Let's talk about this place just a little bit. It's a perfect segue. We're on the verge in D.C. of trying a new experiment. Not the first exactly, but it's pretty close to being the first real experiment then what they're referring to as a research practice partnership. What would you each say are the three most important ingredients to the aspiration for this kind of partnership being successful?

RUTH WATTENBERG:
Well, a very D.C. issue. That is an important one -- is we are a mayoral controlled school district, but unlike any other mayoral control school district, we are a city and we are a state. Not only does the mayor name the chancellor, the mayor names the state superintendent of education, she names the deputy mayor of education. She names all the people on the charter school...

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Just got to stop you here because some of our listeners must be wondering if they were asleep when D.C. got statehood?

RUTH WATTENBERG:
I didn't name it.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I see.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
I didn't name that we have a... Actually, I think the federal government requires you to have a state superintendent education, so we created one.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
In order to get federal funding.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
Yes.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Yeah, okay, but we don't actually have a state. Some of us wish we did.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
Sadly not, sadly not.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Okay, but we've got a state superintendent.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
And a state board of education, which I'm on.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
There you go. Okay, so continue.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
All of the decisions, all of the policy making, all of the conversations, research, everything that's gone on around education for the past 10, 12 years pretty much is in what I will call the mayoral cone. One thing we need to make sure of when we create the research practice partnership is that very, very influential cone isn't in a position to push away research questions that other people want to have researched.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
That's one thing I'm very concerned about. How do you build an RPP in a place you really want to have the strong relationship between the school district, and the charter schools, and the researchers, and the stakeholders. That's what we want. How do you do that in a place where so much of the school power is in one place?

RUTH WATTENBERG:
People want this to be like the Chicago Consortium and I want it to be like the Chicago Consortium. It is the model, what Tony Wright did there. It is the model, but when the Chicago Consortium started, this Chicago Public School system was not the dominant player. The Chicago Public School system had recently been called the worst school system in the country.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
It did not have credibility. The only people at the table from the Chicago Public School system were a couple of mid level people who were totally in favor of let's open up the books and let's understand that. The big players were the University of Chicago and Tony Bright, the people there who really wanted to do this research. Then there was a civic and a foundation community.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
When we create our RPP, how do we do that in a way where we really allow for the kind of open, independent questioning, which needs to ask questions about the stuff that we've done. On the one hand, it shouldn't be got you and it can't be, to use your words, it can't be weaponized.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
The point isn't to do research that is a weapon, but you need to understand what's working and what's not. If there's defensiveness on the other side, research can feel like a weapon and how do you straddle that? How do you create a table to use your example? How do you create a table where all these people can come together, the stakeholders, the school district, the school people, and the researchers and come up with questions that people really want answered and they may not have nice answers.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
Ruths, emphasis on the stakeholders in D.C. particularly rings a bell. I think the primary audience for a partnership of this kind is the public. That's the primary audience to get information out there because when the information is there, then you have the conversations that are needed.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
I think the second thing that needs to be there for this to be a success is the accessibility to data. The data has to be available in order to conduct the research. I mean really you circumscribed the research by holding back the data and in that tug of war around data is where the quality of research will be determined and the effectiveness and the impact it can have on D.C. and schools. Having open data, and right now in D.C. data is not widely available.

ELIZABETH GRANT:
It's hard to get. It's hard to get in a comprehensive way when we have a system that's really two different systems with the public and the charter system. The comprehensiveness of the data and the accessibility to the data, I think will determine how successful the partnership will be. In addition to the things that Ruth was mentioning.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
In case people don't know as much as the three of us know, we may actually have a new research practice partnership in the District of Columbia

RUTH WATTENBERG:
D.C. Council is discussing it, debating it as we speak. There's a draft of a bill, and a lot of us are hoping that there'd be a number of changes to it. Along the lines of what Liz has talked about along the line that of...

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
You're not suggesting that there's going to be political argumentation about this concept.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
There could be.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Oh, I see.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
There could be.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Good.

RUTH WATTENBERG:
Hopefully we'll get to a place where it's going to be not too long from now. It will exist and it'll be doing research and the kinds of questions and with access to the kinds of data that's going to help us move forward here in D.C.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
The name of our podcast is EdFix, which is of course needs a big footnote. Just we're not really sure we can fix the whole system, but we can make progress. On that happy note, I just want to thank you both for sharing your insights and your wit and wisdom with us.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the state board of education in the District of Columbia and Liz Grant, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and human development here at GW.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I've enjoyed this immensely and if our listeners have enjoyed this, then you might want to subscribe to the EdFix Podcast. Which is available on iTunes and Spotify, iHeartRadio, Player FM, or wherever you listen to your podcasts you can get EdFix. We also have a website go.gwu.edu/edfix. Thank you both so very much. Keep up with it. This is the most important thing we've got going in this country.