Finding Expertise in Your Own Backyard
K-12 educators collaborate with a nearby university on academic offerings that serve both partners' needs and interests
BY LAURA J. LINK/School Administrator, November 2018

Laura Link, assistant professor of educational leadership at Purdue University Fort Wayne in Fort Wayne, Ind., with teachers who are involved in the university’s partnership with local high schools.
The law of familiarity indicates that if you’re around anything long enough, you tend to take it for granted. It becomes normal, and you overlook it because it’s so familiar to you.

This was the case with the local colleges and universities neighboring my school district. As an assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in Memphis, Tenn., I was aware of nearby Rhodes College and the University of Memphis because we engaged with them in typical school district/higher education partnerships. We collaborated on student-teacher training and principal mentorships and administered surveys for dissertation research. But our work together ended there.

In my current role as lead facilitator for Purdue University Fort Wayne’s research-practice partnerships, I oversee two large K-16 partnerships that extend well beyond the typical. These partnerships involve teachers and administrators from every grade-level and subject area in Northwest Allen and Southwest Allen school districts in Fort Wayne, Ind. In all, 312 teachers, 37 principals and 22 central-office administrators participate. The unique nature of these research-practice partnerships allows university professors and K-12 practitioners to work in the same classrooms and context, piloting research-based strategies, investigating progress and using student learning outcomes to improve practices together.

Past Disappointments
Pairing university professors with classroom teachers and administrators to address specific student needs is a shift from how I had approached professional development. As an assistant superintendent, I separated my district’s work with our local colleges and universities from the “real” experts who were offering professional learning in the field. Over the years, I employed outside experts from across the country to consult on a range of topics. These consultations were usually short-term and irregular, as experts travelled from their home states to visit with our district.

In between the consultants’ visits, we were on our own to implement, monitor progress and determine the success of the professional development. More often than not, the experts’ research findings and experiences came from external sources, with no guarantee that we’d find the same success or improved practices when applied in our context.

We also regularly sent teachers, principals and school teams to out-of-state institutes and conferences for professional development. After factoring in registration, travel, lodging, food and substitute teacher costs, we typically could only afford to send a few at a time. Moreover, when we used this travel approach for professional development, we found limited and inconsistent redelivery efforts to colleagues or implementation efforts in the classroom.

Even worse, we couldn’t show that our professional development investments were improving student outcomes. At the time, I didn’t have a strategy to remedy these challenges. But I do now.

New Applications
In my role overseeing organizational partnerships, I match K-12 district needs with local university professors who are researchers in the area of need. At Purdue University Fort Wayne alone, we have an array of professors across all colleges, not just the College of Education, capable and willing to conduct action research with partnering teachers to impact student learning outcomes positively and reshape how we facilitate professional development.

In Northwest Allen County Schools, a suburban-rural district with 10 schools and 7,800 students located about 10 miles from our university campus, we just concluded their second research-practice partnership year with two university professors who are researchers and thought leaders on classroom assessment. The professors worked with the superintendent and administrators to develop a professional development plan that focuses on classroom assessments to improve student learning. The plan includes training on mastery learning, which guides teachers on the design and use of quality assessments so students receive regular feedback on their progress. Teachers also learn to use assessment outcomes to reteach concepts and help students correct their learning difficulties.

The implementation involves multi-semester classroom pilots, where teachers and professors work side-by-side to monitor classroom applications and gather data on assessment results. The participating professors are regulars in the K-12 classrooms, leading and guiding pilot work, as well as learning from their partner teachers. A recent evaluation showed the teachers involved in the research-practice partnership saw a 25 percent increase in the number of students reaching mastery (a grade of A or B) on classroom assessments across all grade levels and subjects.

Southwest Allen County Schools, a suburban district with 7,300 students and nine schools approximately 14 miles from campus, is working on classroom grading pilots in their research-practice partnership. Teachers took part in summer training led by university professors, collaborating on implementation and success metrics that considered the district’s context and demographics. The partners work on defining the purpose of grades and ensuring that teachers align their grading and reporting practices to that purpose.

The collaboration led to a report card redesign in Southwest Allen that more clearly communicates students’ achievement of specific learning goals and better identifies students’ areas of strength and weakness.

Professors commit to their research-practice partnership for multiple years, from initial training through implementation, with the goal of helping districts sustain the work on their own. Because the professors work and live in or near the partner school districts, it is easy for them to facilitate the ongoing action research and offer just-in-time assistance when needed.

Startup Challenges
One challenge we faced was figuring out how to incentivize both the teachers and professors to participate, especially as we were getting started. Although the teachers expressed interest, our initial design of offering professional learning sessions before and after school limited their participation. Teachers used that time to care for their families, sponsor clubs, coach sports, etc. Plus, it was difficult for teachers to project their availability beyond one year. As a result, only a handful of teachers initially volunteered to participate.

To address this issue, we moved nearly all professional learning sessions inside teachers’ contracted work hours and collaborated with the university to offer graduate school credit for successful completion of action research pilots. Teachers can apply their earned graduate credits up to 10 years after the partnership.

Because most full and tenured professors are already engaged in other research projects, they were reluctant to participate in the partnership. So we turned instead to assistant and associate professors who welcomed the research opportunities and community service they needed to earn tenure or promotion. Working inside schools and seeing the firsthand effects of their research helped to further incentivize professors’ participation.

Multiple Benefits
Having K-12 teachers and university professors working side-by-side on district-specific improvement efforts has brought multiple benefits. One district administrator reported that the research-practice partnerships provide “access to strengths of researchers and practitioners all in one place.” Even better, this access is for longer periods of time and far more cost-effective than typical professional development approaches.

Teachers have reported they experience more immediate relevance because they are actively involved conducting research and applying findings in their classrooms with their own students. Teachers also seem to have a greater commitment to continuous improvement as they routinely talk with their partner professors and other teachers about their research outcomes and how those outcomes can inform changes in classroom practice.

Strengthened relationships and other partnerships have also emerged as teachers and their students develop personal connections with professors. Some teachers and professors have presented their action research together at local, state and national levels, while others are working on collaborative publications. For students, the connection to professors through these partnerships grants them early access to higher education. These faculty members can serve as references when the high school students apply for college and university admissions.

Nearby and Familiar
Forming research-practice partnerships creates cost-effective, district-specific professional development that supports a district’s long-term aims. It requires district leaders to take a renewed approach to finding expertise, and they need not look far. With more than 4,600 colleges and universities nationwide, expert partners may be found in your own backyard.

LAURA LINK is assistant professor of educational leadership for the College of Professional Studies and lead facilitator of research-practice partnerships at Purdue University Fort Wayne in Fort Wayne, Ind. Twitter: @laurajlink

Additional Resources
Laura Link suggests these informational resources relating to partnerships between K-12 and higher education.

» Implementing Mastery Learning (2nd ed.) by Thomas R. Guskey, Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont, Calif.

» “Research-Practice Partnerships at the District Level: A New Strategy for Leveraging Research for Educational Improvement” by C.E. Coburn, W.R. Penuel and K. Geil, William T. Grant Foundation, New York, N.Y.

» “Research-Practice Partnerships in Education: Outcomes, Dynamics and Open Questions” by C.E. Coburn and W.R. Penuel, Educational Researcher, January 2016