Cynthia Coburn Backs Research-Practice Partnerships as ‘Game-Changers’ for Schools

Cynthia Coburn Backs Research-Practice Partnerships as ‘Game-Changers’ for Schools

Cynthia Coburn

“Research-practice partnerships are a promising strategy for improving schools and districts,” SESP professor Cynthia Coburn says. In a new policy paper she and her co-authors describe these new types of relationships between researchers and school districts that can strengthen schools. 

Evidence of the effectiveness of long-term partnerships between researchers and district leaders to address districts’ pressing needs is beginning to accumulate. Coburn and her co-authors William R. Penuel of University of Colorado and Kimberly E. Geil, an independent researcher, offer specifics about this “new way of doing business.”

The W.T. Grant Foundation released their policy paper, entitled “Research-Practice Partnerships: A Strategy for Leveraging Research for Educational Improvement in School Districts.” The Foundation, which supports research to understand and improve the settings of youth ages 8 to 25 in the United States, seeks to improve the connections between the research and practice communities.

In the paper, the authors identify certain traits that are key to effective research-practice partnerships. Such partnerships are long-term and are specifically organized to investigate problems of practice. In addition, they reflect a commitment to “mutualism” to ensure benefits to both researchers and practitioners. Effective partnerships also have formal strategies for fostering the relationship. Finally, these partnerships produce original analyses for improving district outcomes.

The authors identify three main types of research-practice partnerships in school districts. Research alliances pair school districts with independent research organizations. Design-research partnerships study solutions in real-world contexts. Networked improvement communities involve networks of school districts in leveraging diverse experiences to learn what works and under what conditions.

Although research-practice partnerships are new, certain lessons have been learned. The authors point out strategies for success, such as devoting resources and staffing to the partnership and weighing the pros and cons of starting small or big. In addition, partners should acknowledge the tension between research independence and joint work, the authors say.

“Research-practice partnerships are prospective game-changers. However, in order to promote their effectiveness, we must identify and prepare for their challenges,” say the authors. For example, researchers must balance district needs with the need to produce scalable improvements and must meet district timelines while doing high-quality research.

Funders too play an important role in ensuring the success of partnerships. The authors’ advice is for funders to provide general operating support, require details about products and processes, identify innovative ways to co-fund researchers and practitioners, and support capacity-building activities.

Coburn is a professor at the School of Education and Social Policy in both the Learning Sciences and Human Development and Social Policy programs. She studies the relationship between instructional policy and teachers' classroom practices in urban schools. Coburn has a PhD in education from Stanford University, and in 2011 she received an Early Career Award from the American Education Research Association for a distinguished portfolio of cumulative research within the first decade of her career.

Coburn's full policy paper is available on the W.T. Grant Foundation website at

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/1/13