Partnering with Research Studies Pays Off in PD
Perhaps some of you, like me, took the Polaroid professional development workshop years ago, where you learned how to use a camera for classroom projects, received your continuing education credits, and took home a free camera (mine is still sitting in a box somewhere). We all know that this type of professional development does not pass muster in these "highly qualified" times. To find professional development that supports teacher growth in new ways, I recommend looking beyond commercial programs to another option—becoming a partner in a research project. Partnering in a study with a research agency, university, or foundation provides three significant benefits: (1) learning about and piloting promising practices, (2) increasing professionalism within a school or district, and (3) becoming better producers and consumers of both data and research.
Piloting Promising Practices
Pressures to improve student performance make it tempting to latch onto any new program in hopes that it will provide an easy path to improved student achievement. Effective schools and districts, however, take a more measured approach, identifying programs that most match their students' needs and testing the efficacy of selected programs on a small scale before scaling them up across the district. Most well-designed research studies use the same process; they test a program in a subset of schools and compare the results with similarly matched schools to determine the program's effect.
Partnering on a research study opens up possibilities for cost-effective exploration of new curricula, professional development, or other program models. Often, it is a chance for schools and districts to try a promising program they might otherwise have overlooked that may help produce the increased student achievement they are seeking. Yes, when they join a study, they are helping out the external researchers, but they also are evaluating a program for the district's needs. As they assist with piloting it, schools and teachers receive necessary study materials (and training if needed) and see firsthand how the program aligns with achievement goals.
Studies show that "high-performing schools develop a 'culture of high expectations'" (Barley, Apthorp, & Goodwin, 2007). Partnering on a research study affords all participants a chance to grow professionally and to develop high expectations for everyone in the school. Heather Eberts, the executive director of elementary education for the Eagle County Schools in Eagle, Colo., was instrumental in her district's decision to partner in a research study examining a formative assessment program involving all the district's elementary schools. She viewed it as a logical next step: "As a district, we believe that our professional development structure is in place and is solid. The study provided us with the content to use within our structure."
Opportunities for teachers include
- Contributing to the knowledge in the field,
- Increasing their knowledge and improving their practice,
- Helping roll out a new program within their district, and
- Receiving new materials for their schools and districts.
In addition, some research studies offer credit hours or certification for participation or training related to the study. Ultimately, teachers not only improve their own practice, but also contribute to the larger school community as they become experts in a new program while modeling professional growth. Schools can benefit from partnering even if they are randomly selected to be in a control group.
Vicki Axford, principal of Ridgeview Elementary School in Colorado Springs views their participation in the assessment study as a growth experience for teachers: "It was the first time for some of our teachers to be involved in research—it was a great way to learn what it takes and what's involved." Through effective communication between the researchers and participants, schools learn about data collection instruments, the sorts of data they can look for in their own practice, and the importance of collecting data from both intervention and control teachers. Axford encourages schools to "grab hold of" partnership opportunities and to think of them as opportunities to "get more tools in your belt."
While schools can find potential partners in a number of ways, effective communication is important even from the first steps of the study process. Whether seeking out opportunities by cultivating relationships with universities, stopping by booths of research institutions at conferences, searching online (use "participate in a research study" with either "schools" or "education," then filter out health-related results), it is important to understand both the goals of the study and your school or district's goals. Ask questions to determine how long the study is, how much time is required both in the classroom and for data collection, what the benefits are, what happens if the school is selected for the control group, and so on. When practical, teachers should also have opportunities to give input about partnership's study project; both fidelity to the intervention and response rates on data collection items increase in schools where teachers had opportunities to give feedback.
Becoming Producers and Consumers of Research and Data
When teachers and administrators partner in a research study, they see the power of data. A good study will collect pre- and post-data on student achievement, as well as data on relevant instructional and leadership processes during the duration of the study. If student-level data is collected, it likely will be available to school leaders to examine their school's performance and to help them hone in on aspects that need greater attention. As administrators and leadership teams see the types of data collected for a research study, they begin to recognize the importance of using various forms of data collection and can evaluate whether and how these types of data will be helpful in the future. Often, they are the first to know whether the focus of the research study was successful, both within the school and across the study.
For schools and districts facing limited budgets and pressures to increase student performance, partnering with a research organization is a smart choice.
Barley, Z., Apthorp, H., & Goodwin, B. (2007). Creating a culture of high expectations. Changing Schools, 55, 5.
Andrew Newman is an educational consultant and a former research associate with Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) in Denver, Colo. He has taught in middle schools in Missouri and Michigan, and in the teacher preparation program at Michigan State University.
ASCD Express, Vol. 5, No. 25. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.