Urban Wire Building an Education Research-Practice Partnership for DC
Matthew Chingos
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Students perform during the Music Industry Leaders And Artists Bring Music event at Bancroft Elementary School as part of Namm's DC fly-in on May 18, 2015, in Washington, DC.

How well are DC’s schools serving students?

It might seem like a simple question, but the answer depends on who you ask. Different metrics can tell different stories, and families’ experiences vary depending on their school, neighborhood, income, and race or ethnicity.

The charge of the DC Education Research Collaborative, the research arm of DC’s new research-practice partnership (RPP), is, in some sense, to build common understanding around questions like these. The hope of this new effort is that rigorous research, done in partnership with practitioners, will provide everyone with a common set of facts that they can trust, even if they draw different conclusions.

We don’t expect that any amount of data or research is going to change the view of someone whose school did not serve them well. But we hope this effort, once it’s fully under way, can make progress toward answering a different question: how could DC’s schools better serve students? To ensure the answers we uncover lead to meaningful change, however, we’ll first need to listen and build trust.

Since the announcement earlier this year that the Collaborative, led by the Urban Institute, would serve as the research partner to the District’s public schools (both district and charter), we’ve been met with no small amount of skepticism from education leaders who want to believe in the power of research to drive change but often have seen research that does not reflect what they experience in schools. They—rightfully—wonder how research and data can meaningfully reflect the experiences of the students, teachers, principals, librarians, custodians, and others who make the education systems function day-to-day.

And the short answer is it won’t, unless students, teachers, principals, librarians, and custodians are at the table from day one.

The research organizations that make up the Collaborative believe in data, but what makes us excited about the RPP model is the prospect of partnering with practitioners to ensure the research is transparent, accurate, and actionable. In the RPP model, community partners have a say in the research questions, the process, the framing, and the dissemination. We will make sure our findings reflect realities on the ground—and where data and people’s experiences don’t align, we will acknowledge and seek to understand that. We will work with the education community to translate research findings into recommendations that can help teachers, principals, and policymakers develop their own practices that can improve learning and life outcomes. We hope that if stakeholders trust the process, they will trust the results, even when those results are unexpected.

The first step to building that trust is listening to and learning from the broader education community so that a wide range of priorities and experiences are reflected in our work. Though many of us live in DC and have kids in DC’s public schools, we know our experiences are not representative of everyone’s and that how people experience DC’s schools is often influenced by where they live, their race or ethnicity, their income, and their child’s needs. We are eager to hear and learn from other parents as well as teachers, principals, school counselors, tutors, mentors, and everyone else whose work affects students’ lives, and we will be sure we hear voices from all eight wards. Over the coming months, we will be seeking your input, feedback, and ideas. And while some of these groups will be formally represented on the 21-member Advisory Committee, we hope everyone will remain engaged in some capacity as the work moves forward.

Engaging with the community will require proactive strategies, not just abstract promises. We plan to reach out to a range of education-focused community groups, such as the ward education councils and nonprofit organizations throughout the city. We want to build on existing relationships and establish new ones not just for one-off listening sessions but to open and sustain two-way lines of communication for the long term.

How we engage with the community will evolve as this work unfolds and we learn along the way. We invite your input now and going forward as to how we can best make sure that we hear from diverse voices, especially those that are frequently unheard or ignored.

We won’t always get this process right, and we’ll look to the community to hold us accountable when we make a mistake. For now, we welcome your feedback, comments, questions, ideas, and critiques. We think high-quality, collaborative research is critical to creating a more equitable school system, and we’re excited to begin this journey in partnership with the community.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Greater DC Education
States District of Columbia
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