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Research-Practice Partnerships, Redux

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | February 4, 2020

Over the past few months I have received many questions about the extent to which IES supports Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs). I fear that my critique of the shortcomings of our previous RPP approach has generalized into a perception that I am hostile to partnerships. Worse, this has somehow generated questions about my support for working with SEAs and LEAs.

I have gone on record many times and in many places stating the obvious: it is impossible to imagine a world of applied education research where our work is done without close collaboration with educators and education agencies. Indeed, our RFAs usually require this collaboration.

The problem with many RPPs I have observed is twofold. First, RPPs were focused on replicating the Chicago Consortium model. The Consortium is proof positive of the value of close cooperation between researchers and practitioners. However, after many millions of dollars spent pursuing replication, only a small number of other consortia come anywhere close to being as effective as Chicago's.

Second, most RPPs were oriented toward process rather than outcomes. I understand the importance of practitioners and researchers "breaking bread" together to build relationships. However, partnerships are a means to an end. And that end is to improve learning for Americans across the life span. Too few RPPs were laser focused on that goal; too many elevated process over outcomes.

In fact, IES is constantly looking for ways to connect education research and practice. As examples—

  • Our current pre-doctoral training competition requires an apprenticeship in an SEA, LEA, or school (including postsecondary institutions).
  • We are re-envisioning the RELs to increase their usefulness to those who support educators' use of evidence-based practices (primarily SEAs and LEAs).
  • We are reaching out through the RELs and other avenues to identify researchers in SEAs and LEAs to serve on the peer review panels that are gatekeepers to the millions of dollars in research funding we award annually.
  • We are transforming the What Works Clearinghouse to make it more accessible and understandable—and thereby more useful to state and local education agencies that make choices about interventions and curricula every day.
  • We are supporting Tom Kane and SHEEO in assessing the extent to which the Strategic Data Fellows Program can be replicated in higher education.
  • We are about to launch a major redesign of our web site, preceded by an extensive study of the audiences for our work—a study that will include a strong focus on the needs of state and local education agencies as central to the achievement of our mission.

The list goes on.

IES will continue to encourage, support, and prioritize collaboration between researchers and practitioners, but without specifying how that cooperation should be structured. To use the "tight/loose" frame that is sometimes applied to the analysis of public policies, IES will be tight on its goal of improving outcomes but loose on the mechanisms that our stakeholders can use to achieve those goals. This concept is manifest in our approach to partnerships but can be found in other IES efforts, most notably in the radical simplification of topic descriptions in our research competitions.

The education policy/research world is filled with smart people—we need to enable them to experiment with new approaches and new models to overcome the difficult problems we face. No single model of partnerships or anything else is ever going to work everywhere, so researchers and practitioners need the freedom to test new models—so long as they are squarely focused on meeting the needs of learners and the communities in which they live.

As always, I welcome your comments. Write to me at