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The benefits of a research-practice partnership for early childhood education and state agencies

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By Tiffany Neill | November 18, 2019

Guest author Tiffany Neill is executive director of curriculum and instruction at the Oklahoma State Department of Education. As a member of our Southwest Early Childhood Education Research Partnership, Neill has observed firsthand the value to state education agencies of the REL program’s research-practice partnerships (RPPs). She shares how the partnership has helped OSDE build capacity and accomplish its early childhood education goals.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) began partnering with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest in 2018 to address the goals of the state’s successful early childhood education program. The partnership is designed as a research-practice partnership (RPP), which is a long-term collaboration between researchers and practitioners focused on key dilemmas and challenges that practitioners face (Coburn & Penuel, 2016). RPPs are designed to be mutually beneficial, with the focus of the work jointly negotiated with shared authorities. As the partners collaborate to conduct research and apply evidence-based solutions, OSDE is finding added value and unexpected benefits as a result of the RPP process and structure.

For nearly two decades, Oklahoma has recognized the role that early childhood education plays in closing the achievement gap for students and has prioritized it by offering universal prekindergarten to children and families in the state. Oklahoma is a perennial leader in early childhood education and was recently recognized for meeting 9 of the 10 benchmarks for effective preschool education in the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR) Report (Friedman-Krauss et al., 2019).

Even as success and praise for Oklahoma’s early childhood education initiatives mount, OSDE, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, seeks to continually improve policies and programs that impact our youngest learners and their teachers. To that end, Oklahoma has set a goal of aligning early childhood education and learning foundations to ensure that at least 75 percent of students are “ready to read” upon kindergarten entry (OSDE, 2017, p. 15).

One joint goal of the RPP with REL Southwest has been to study the following questions concerning the quality of practices occurring in prekindergarten classrooms: (1) To what extent are research-based curricula and instructional practices used in Oklahoma’s prekindergarten classrooms? (2) How, if at all, does the use of these research-based practices vary across sites, including by geographical location and demographic characteristics of the attending students?

To better answer these questions, the partnership has developed a survey to capture information about public preK curricula and instructional practices currently in use. To create the classroom practices survey, REL Southwest organized and led an intentional codesign process. OSDE staff were involved in every step of the survey development, including piloting the survey through cognitive laboratory interviews (Nolin & Chandler, 1996) with Oklahoma teachers in which OSDE staff listened to respondents think aloud as they answered questions from the survey. The cognitive laboratories allowed team members to better understand what teachers were thinking as they answered the survey questions and how the questions might be adjusted to strengthen the validity of the responses when the survey is administered.

By codesigning the survey, OSDE not only gained a reliable and valid measurement tool that can be used for years to come, but strengthened internal capacity to develop survey constructs and questions. As a result of the codesigning sessions, OSDE staff have stated they plan to use the process to refine existing surveys and develop new measurement tools to inform policy and programmatic decisions in other areas of focus at the department. Furthermore, the value of cognitive labs is now a common talking point in survey and question design across subject areas.

Another RPP project of similar scope, effort, and benefit to OSDE staff capacity focused on coaching for an Early Learning Inventory (ELI) pilot. Partners collaborated to frame a problem and enact a policy change to adopt and pilot an ELI instrument. Agency staff increased their knowledge and skills to facilitate a pilot study of an ELI, including developing a communication plan, recruiting participants, and analyzing the results of the pilot. The coaching on instrument validity, reliability, and other methodological research approaches has allowed OSDE staff to become much more familiar and conversant with these approaches. With an expanded understanding of the process, they can be more confident in adopting a new ELI instrument.

In addition to the survey codesign approach and the ELI pilot study, the structure of REL Southwest coaching sessions has proven to be a valuable and unique component of the REL program process. When OSDE and REL Southwest collaborated to identify screeners for Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), coaching sessions were held for curriculum directors around reliability and validity and how they inform decisions about evidence-based practices, measures, or tools. With coaching presented as a shared activity among trusted partners, as opposed to a one-sided relationship, directors saw coaching sessions as safe spaces to ask questions and to give and receive feedback. The directors’ learning process was brought to the forefront, increasing individual staff capacity and elevating conversations with colleagues as directors share their knowledge.

The research-practice partnership between REL Southwest and OSDE has been extremely beneficial by advancing ongoing early childhood education and helping OSDE staff gain internal capacity for evidence-based constructs and a deeper understanding of reliability and validity measures allowing Oklahoma to gain sound, reliable data to inform programmatic and policy decisions now and in the future.


Coburn, C., & Penuel, W. R. (2016). Research-practice partnerships in education: Outcomes, dynamics, and open questions. Educational Researcher, 45(1) pp. 48–54.

Friedman-Krauss, A. H., Barnett, W. S., Garver, K. A., Hodges, K. S., Weisenfeld, G. G. & DiCrecchio, N. (2019). The state of preschool 2018: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.

Nolin, N. J., & Chandler, K. (1996). Use of cognitive laboratories and recorded interviews in the national household education survey (NCES No. 96-332). National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education (2017). Oklahoma edge: Oklahoma ESSA consolidated plan. Office of Education Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.