Building and Maintaining Effective Research Partnerships


January 22, 2014


Two adults working at a table

Across the country, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers are partnering to address critical local education issues. These research-practice partnerships, or research alliances, are designed to promote the use of evidence that’s relevant, timely, and user friendly.

REL Northwest is currently involved in eight alliances tackling such issues as dropout prevention, more equitable outcomes for English language learners, college readiness and persistence, discipline disparities, and school improvement strategies. Over the past two years, this work has yielded a number of lessons that are captured in a new Lessons Learned brief on Addressing the Challenges of Building and Maintaining Effective Research Partnerships. The four lessons on member expectations, alliance focus, communications, and data use are informed by REL Northwest staff’s field experiences, survey feedback from alliance members, and observations from a national forum that REL Northwest held in Portland in April 2013.

Using relevant data and research evidence to improve decisionmaking is a core value shared by most educators, policymakers, and researchers. Yet, living up to this value can be devilishly difficult, owing to time, knowledge, and the professional cultures and relationships that too often wall off these communities from each other. Research alliances and similar partnerships offer a highly promising strategy for bringing these worlds closer together and realizing the ambitious goals that bring us to this work

- REL Northwest Director Christopher Mazzeo

According to the Lessons Learned brief, effective research alliances focus on a shared purpose that’s also supported by key agency decisionmakers. The partnerships emphasize “mutualism”: a term coined by researchers Coburn, Penuel and Geil that means alliance members work together authentically toward a common goal, common aims, shared values, and equal authority. In carrying out this work, partnerships often face challenges such as finding time for collaboration, defining actionable research questions, obtaining the right data to answer questions, and engaging and communicating with members.

Mazzeo and co-authors Rhonda Barton and Kari Nelsestuen hope that the lessons reflect the experience of others involved in research alliances and provide some guideposts for those approaching this new and growing model of putting research into practice.