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A new tool for assessing the health of research-practice partnerships

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By Elizabeth Barkowski | May 4, 2021

REL Southwest developed and recently published a tool to assess the health of research-practice partnerships (RPPs). This blog post highlights information about the tool’s development and use and shares insights from partnership members who have used it. The post is written by Elizabeth Barkowski, Ph.D., part of the team that designed the new tool. Dr. Barkowski is a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, where her areas of focus include education program evaluation, research, and technical assistance.

REL Southwest partners with state education agencies, school districts, and other educational organizations to address pressing education issues through research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Our website’s partnership pages list partnership members and describe the focus of work in each state.

What Are Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs)?

RPPs are “collaborations between practitioners and researchers that are intentionally organized to investigate problems of practice and solutions for improving district [and state] outcomes.”1 Education RPPs offer structures and processes for bridging research and practice and ultimately driving improvements in K–12 outcomes. In addition to the REL Program, organizations such as the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships work with and develop RPPs in education research, and the National Science Foundation’s Computer Science for All program and the Spencer Foundation provide funding for RPPs.

After year one of the RPPs, we identified a need to improve their participation, engagement, and overall functionality. To inform our next steps, we needed a research-based tool to assess RPP health. For this reason, REL Southwest developed the Tool for Assessing the Health of Research-Practice Partnerships.

How did we develop this tool? As the basis of the new tool, REL Southwest used an existing framework defined in Assessing Research-Practice Partnerships: Five Dimensions of Effectiveness 2, which was developed with support from the W.T. Grant Foundation. The framework provides dimensions and indicators that researchers and practitioners must address to build and sustain an effective RPP. The authors of this framework intended the indicators to serve as a guide for future RPPs to develop more specific measures of RPP effectiveness, and the framework was intended to be customized for specific RPP needs.

In addition to meeting the research community’s need to address the challenge of RPP evaluation and improvement, the tool provides a means for participation by practitioner partners. Teachers, administrators, and other practitioners can use the tool to identify challenges and issues with the RPP’s process and goals, ensuring they have a voice in its assessment and continuous improvement. REL Southwest developed the new tool for individuals—researchers or practitioners—who want to formatively assess and continuously improve an RPP in collaboration with its members. Together the partners set short- and medium-term measurable goals, establish processes and structures to support these goals, and reflect on the degree to which their work accomplishes these goals.

Feedback from RPP members. Prior to publishing, REL Southwest staff tested the tool with RPP members to refine the tool and its guidance. RPP members provided the following feedback:

“If it wasn’t for this [tool and process], we wouldn’t have any measures [of our RPP’s health]. It’s as simple as that.” — RPP district representative

“At the beginning, I have to say I was totally lost [in the RPP], especially with the research part of it. But now when we meet we talk a little about their findings and [the tool] helps me guide the work for the future.” — RPP district representative

“It has been a breath of fresh air to have another partner joining us in this work, and to actually get us to look up…at the larger context of the project. That’s been something that has been fun and informative.”  — RPP researcher representative

How can you use this tool? The REL Southwest Tool for Assessing the Health of RPPs includes a guidance document and an Excel workbook that consists of three parts. The tool components are also outlined in this infographic.

The tool guidance includes information on how to use each of the workbook’s three parts, including:

  1. Guidance to prioritize dimensions and indicators.
  2. Guidance to establish short- and medium-term goals and measures.
  3. Interview protocol designed to help conduct interviews with the RPP members to assess the health of prioritized dimensions and indicators.

Individual RPP members may use the tool effectively without a significant investment of time, even if they have limited experience evaluating or participating in RPPs.

By using a formative lens rather than a summative one, the tool encourages RPP members to purposefully and honestly reflect on their collaborative work and to make necessary adjustments and improvements over time to achieve the partnership’s intended outcomes. An early evaluation could ensure all members have a common understanding of the process and goals as the partnership gets underway. Quarterly assessment could help keep the RPP focused on goals or identify a need to adjust them. By conducting the interviews with RPP members, evaluators can discover if an individual member needs support.

We hope the tool will serve your RPPs well in the future! The REL Southwest team invites you to contact us with questions or to share your experiences using the tool.


1 Coburn, C. E., Penuel, W. R., & Geil, K. E. (2013). Research-practice partnerships: A strategy for leveraging research for educational improvement in school districts. William T. Grant Foundation.

2 Henrick, E.C., Cobb, P., Penuel, W.R., Jackson, K., & Clark, T. (2017). Assessing research-practice partnerships: Five dimensions of effectiveness. New York, NY: William T. Grant Foundation. Retrieved from

For more information on research-practice partnerships and their assessment:

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Author Information

Barkowski Elizabeth photo

Barkowski Elizabeth

American Institutes for Research