D.C. Voices: School priorities for the District’s new research-practice partnership

February 04, 2021
  • Tanaz Meghjani
  • Chelsea Coffin
Featured Image
Photo/Ted Eytan. Used with permission. (Source)

What does a successful research-practice partnership look like?

In 2018, the D.C. Council enacted legislation to create a research-practice partnership (RPP) in support of actionable, independent research for the District’s education sector.

An education research-practice partnership is a collaborative engagement between researchers and education agencies that aims to identify paths for continued improvements in education.

The research partner is typically a research institution or university that can conduct long-term research to inform policy and practice and is experienced in cleaning, storing, and managing large datasets. The practice partner informs the research agenda, provides student- and school-level data, and determines the rules for data access. The practice partners might include schools, school boards, or the state education agency.

Successful education research-practice partnerships – such as those that exist in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York – have buy-in from practitioners and are trusted by the schools and education entities that provide data. They collaboratively choose research topics to support improvements in practice.

The stakeholder engagement process

The RPP legislation passed by the D.C. Council outlined the process to establish the partnership. First, to identify a research partner, a review panel comprised of three Mayoral appointees and three Council appointees reviewed proposals from three groups. In 2021, the review panel ultimately selected the District of Columbia Education Research Collaborative. [1] (The D.C. Policy Center is a member of this collaborative.)

Once the District has entered into a legal agreement with the collaborative, an act which will formally establish the RPP, an Advisory Committee will be responsible for providing guidance and determining a research agenda for the partnership. The Advisory Committee will be comprised of 21 government representatives, educators, school leaders, and other stakeholders who have yet to be appointed by the Mayor, the D.C. Council, education agencies, and other organizations.

To ensure that the priorities of schools will be considered when the RPP gets going, the D.C. Policy Center hosted three workshops from December 2019 to February 2020, at which school leaders and data staff were asked what topic areas were of greatest interest to them, and how they wanted RPP researchers to work with them.

Participants in the three workshops included more than 50 representatives from:

  • Several District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)
  • 20 public charter Local Education Agencies (LEAs) including adult and alternative schools
  • Representatives from DCPS’s central office
  • Representatives from DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB)
  • Representatives from DC State Board of Education (DC SBOE).

The above list is not exhaustive, nor representative, of each and every school in D.C.

Ultimately, the participants in these workshops contributed to the core product of the workshops: a list of priority research topics and a list of guidelines for engagement for the RPP, once it is underway.

It is the hope of the D.C. Policy Center that those priority research topics and guidelines for engagement, as described below, will provide a strong base for an ongoing conversation on how researchers and schools can deliberately work together in D.C.’s RPP and how the Advisory Committee will set the research agenda. The findings from these group discussions are intended to inform the researchers and policymakers who are tasked with creating the Advisory Committee that will provide intellectual guidance from diverse perspectives, help establish a five-year research agenda, and provide feedback on research projects.

The priority research topics and guidelines are described below. Given the pre-COVID timing of the workshops, the priority research topics and guidelines are followed by responses from workshop participants on how they should be shifted to meet the new research needs given the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures. Several of these participants also expressed interest in contributing ideas once the RPP kicks off.

Additional information about the RPP, the D.C. Policy Center’s process, and other suggested research topics and guidelines for engagement can be found in the full report, Guidance from the District’s public schools to the future research-practice partnership: How should it work with schools? 

Priority research topic themes for D.C.’s RPP

Priority themes for research topics emerged across workshops and in the working group as research that is of high interest to schools that may help them investigate areas where they are doing well or could do better. Representatives from D.C.’s schools indicated that they are interested in research concerning long-term outcomes, equity and achievement, mental health and support services, school models, and student movement. These themes are described below and are accompanied by areas of interest as formulated by the school leaders – these areas are broad by design and can eventually evolve into more specific research questions.

1. Long term outcomes

Research on this topic theme will examine how successful students are after they graduate or disengage from high school. This will look at college, vocational, and workforce outcomes. Potential research topics include:

  • What are measures of post-secondary success in addition to college persistence?
  • What are longitudinal outcomes for special populations such as English learners and adult learners?
  • How is the educational attainment of parents related to children’s learning outcomes?
  • What are the most valuable workforce competencies?
  • What barriers do students face to enroll in and graduate from college?
  • How are outcomes for students in elementary school related to outcomes in middle school and high school?

2. Equity and achievement

Research will produce evidence and knowledge that can make D.C. schools more equitable for all students, particularly those who have been historically under-served. Potential research topics include:

  • What are the best practices for serving specific populations such as English learners, students with disabilities, at-risk students, and immigrants?
  • What additional supports are needed to help underperforming students succeed?
  • What are the trajectories of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)? What factors determine their success?
  • What are the practices of diverse schools that have strong outcomes for all students?
  • What disrupts inequality in education?
  • How can we measure how well schools serve special populations beyond growth and achievement scores? What would an ‘access to opportunities’ metric on the School Report Card evaluate?

3. Mental health and support services

Research will provide a better understanding of how social and emotional factors affect students’ academic and overall outcomes, including the effectiveness of models that currently address mental health needs. Potential research topics include:

  • How many students are experiencing trauma in schools and what supports are in place to address this? How effective are these models?
  • What are the highest needs for support among students (housing, food access, safety, for example) and what are schools doing to address them?

4. Program offerings

Research will describe the different educational models (Montessori, bilingual, IB, STEM, personalized learning, no excuses, arts-infused, year-round, extended day, expeditionary learning, etc.) and measure how effective different models are for students of different backgrounds. Potential research topics include:

  • How does performance compare for different demographic groups in different educational models?
  • To what extent are students from different backgrounds accessing each educational model?
  • How do models impact student success in postsecondary education?

5. Student movement from school to school

Research will examine how student movement between schools impacts outcomes. Potential research topics include:

  • What is the impact of school closure on students, staff, and a community?
  • Which students change schools, and how often, when, and why?
  • Which students stay at a school, and why?
  • How does changing schools impact a student’s outcomes?
  • What influences families’ school choices?

Priority guidelines for engagement for D.C.’s RPP

Priority guidelines for engagement themes provide ideas — as described by schools — for how research partners can establish trust with the practice partners. Providing research guidelines gives stakeholders a clear understanding of what they can expect from the RPP, and a sense of what their own responsibilities will be. Representatives from D.C.’s schools indicated that guidelines around voice, data use, transparency, data collection, and communication would be helpful to them in the research process.

1. Create voice and agency

Ensure that representative and racially/ethnically/socioeconomically diverse stakeholders are meaningfully included, valued, promoted, and heard at all key conversations and decision points throughout the process. Example guidelines include:

  • Ensure that schools have equal power and autonomy in the agenda, decisions, and communication of findings and guidelines for engagement.
  • Ensure that practitioners and D.C. education stakeholders have a meaningful voice in the agenda, decisions, and communication of findings and guidelines for engagement.
  • Ensure that families and community members have a meaningful voice in the agenda, decisions, and communication of findings and guidelines for engagement.
  • Ensure that decisionmakers are representative and diverse; decisions aren’t just made by those with time and access.
  • Ensure that system leaders are invested in the work and partnership, and advocate for best use of the work.
  • Provide an understanding of how other RPPs function and how D.C.’s is similar/different.

2. Set clear guidelines for data use

Ensure that data are protected, and findings are sensitively, appropriately, and meaningfully determined. Example guidelines include:

  • Share data with schools first, particularly those providing data to receive feedback.
  • Provide clarity on policies that regulate access to data by the RPP or organizations outside the RPP if relevant.
  • Ensure data confidentiality.
  • Ensure that findings are reported at the aggregate level. All participating schools can be noted in the research but no specific school will be mentioned.
  • Use both qualitative and quantitative data as relevant and when appropriate.
  • Ensure high cultural competence standards, demonstrating an appreciation of both the practice partners’ and the researchers’ cultural identities, and how they interact.

3. Focus on transparency

Ensure all processes, milestones, and decisions are readily available for all stakeholders and the public to understand drivers and outcomes of the RPP. Example guidelines include:

  • Ensure clear and transparent processes for sharing findings with schools, agencies, and others.
  • Provide transparency around how the data and findings will be used as well as about the timeline.
  • Clarify the relationship between all stakeholders (including education agencies).
  • Provide transparency into political influences and how researchers are influenced.
  • Provide transparency into who the funders are and what their interests are.
  • Provide transparency into the voices at the table – who is and isn’t represented? Where are the gaps in representation?
  • Have an open conversation about how all major parties will work together and what the RPP is working towards. Acknowledge that individual agendas may be different and think about how the RPP will move forward with that understanding.

4. Be thoughtful about data collection

Ensure that data collection is a shared burden that is agreed upon at regular intervals among and between collectors, stakeholders, and those requiring collected data. Example guidelines include:

  • Try to minimize the burden on schools and provide an incentive for participation.
  • Clearly communicate which data will be collected.
  • Provide assurance of data quality and integrity.
  • Conduct rapid cycle research when possible.
  • Outline clear rules for sharing data beyond schools.
  • Adhere to cultural competence standards in collecting and classifying data.

5. Create strong communications

Ensure clear, regular, and forthright updates among all stakeholders. Example guidelines include:

  • Organize frequent and consistent meetings among school leaders and researchers to interpret findings and discuss how to turn research into action.
  • Provide periodic updates to inform schools about what is being done with the data and when.
  • Ensure that the findings are accessible, and the reporting is digestible.
  • Appoint a central person within the RPP group to answer quick turnaround questions.
  • Allow a group of representative LEAs to review the findings during an embargo period.
  • Ensure public accountability beyond LEAs.

COVID-19 and the RPP

The pandemic and related school closures have resulted in additional barriers to learning for many, have often increased mental health concerns, and have contributed to learning loss for some. These changes may have an impact on research priorities and guidelines for engagement.

To get an idea of what additional research topics and guidelines workshop participants would like to include, the D.C. Policy Center sent a survey to workshop participants. In general, most respondents thought it would be important to add new research topics, but very few thought it would be important to add new guidelines. Their recommendations are included below.

Survey recommendations for new research topics in response to COVID-19 changes

  • What was the role of parents in supporting student learning during virtual instruction?
  • What was the full scope of learning loss and the social-emotional impact of school closures?
  • What are the long-term impacts of the pandemic on learning?
  • What lessons learned should we carry forward from virtual and hybrid instruction?
  • What initiatives and efforts were most helpful for students and families during this time?
  • How can we support eighth graders who might otherwise disengage before high school?
  • What was the impact of virtual instruction on in-person discipline?
  • How can we examine when skill deficits due to not having in-person instruction have been amplified because of special education needs?
  • How do we measure school quality in virtual environment?
  • What is the level of learning loss over the last several months?
  • What are the most effective personalized learning models that help to mediate learning loss?

Survey recommendations for new guidelines for engagement in response to COVID-19 changes

  • Speak carefully about who the data from these school years represents, as students who can successfully participate in virtual instruction or are able to attend in-person instruction are substantively different from those who cannot.

Participant suggestions for new research topics in response to COVID-19 changes

The D.C. Policy Center also reached out to several workshop participants to ask the following question: What topics should the research-practice partnership prioritize in its first years, given the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures?

Ashley Simpson Baird, Ph.D., Research and Policy Consultant, Briya Public Charter School

Researchers will play a vital role in helping education leaders understand the impacts of virtual and hybrid learning on immediate and long-term educational outcomes.

Ashley Simpson Baird

Despite the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also provides an incredible opportunity to rethink many of our public systems and institutions. Schools in particular are reflecting on the myriad of lessons learned from distance learning over the past 10 months to shape what education will look like in a post-COVID world. Researchers will play a vital role in helping education leaders understand the impacts of virtual and hybrid learning on immediate and long-term educational outcomes. Relatedly, researchers will need to account for variations in quality across virtual and hybrid classrooms and how that variation relates to student outcomes. Identifying new successful practices as well as well as innovative ways to make schools more equitable must be a priority for researchers and policymakers.

D.C.’s unique public education landscape which spans early childhood through adult learning deserves specific attention in both school recovery and in the new Researcher-Practitioner Partnership. D.C.’s thriving adult schools—who largely serve parents of school age students—will play a critical role in engaging families during the return to in-person instruction. Researchers should aim to understand which efforts at adult schools successfully engage families in this new normal so that they can be scaled up.

The pandemic has shed an even stronger light on the inequities that exist in our society and specifically in schools; the impacts of learning loss and disconnection will likely endure well beyond a return to in-person learning. For many reasons, data from these school years will look very different than previous or subsequent years. Researchers will be tasked with employing methods to account for extensive missing data given variation in attendance and the cancellation of statewide assessments. It will be crucial to understand which students are missing from data in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years as well as why they may be missing.

Finally, we all hope that soon this terrible time will be behind us. However, we need to also consider the possibility that future events could potentially bring about the need to shift back to virtual learning. Research on what was successful during this time could go a long way in planning for such a possibility.

Stu Smither Wulsin, Director of Data Analysis, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School

As research becomes available, we look forward to using it to adjust our approach to best serve our students.

Stu Smither Wulsin

At E.L. Haynes, we are excited about the ability of the research-practice partnership to provide research that we can use to improve our schools. This will be more important than ever as we assess the pandemic’s impact on equity and achievement.

Below are some of the questions we are thinking about – in addition to the priority research topics we developed last year. We hope these can be informed by research:

Equity:

  • How has the transition to virtual instruction impacted the achievement gap?
  • How does learning loss compare across grade levels?
  • What supports do students need to process the trauma they experienced, and how does this vary across demographic groups?
  • Are there groups of students who did better during virtual instruction, and what can we learn from their experience?

Achievement:

  • How do students’ achievement levels post-pandemic compare to their expected achievement pre-pandemic?
  • What schools are doing the best job of helping students catch up?
  • How much does extending the school day or the school year help make up for lost learning?
  • How did the changes to college admission requirements affect acceptance rates and enrollment?

We cannot wait for research before addressing the challenges created by the pandemic. However, as research becomes available, we look forward to using it to adjust our approach to best serve our students.

Jessica Mellen Enos, Director of Performance, TenSquare

The RPP, with access to OSSE’s enrollment data, has the ability to clearly identify which eighth graders do not return to a D.C. school in the fall without adding a school data collection burden. There is also potential for the RPP to forge and leverage connections with neighboring jurisdictions to share enrollment data and track student mobility and enrollment in the entire D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area, making this process even more comprehensive.

Jessica Mellen Enos

Each June, we relish watching eighth grade students celebrate the completion of middle school, cheered on by family and friends, excited for high school in just a few short months. But this has not been a typical year. Students have experienced unprecedented trauma, social-emotional impacts, and academic challenges while engaging in remote learning. More than ever given the myriad of pandemic challenges, eighth grade students may just disappear this summer, never stepping foot into a high school, increasing the number of disengaged youth in D.C. In my role supporting charter schools, I have many conversations about student enrollment and mobility, particularly at key transition years such as eighth grade. For eighth graders in typical years, we focus on ensuring high school applications are submitted through the My School DC (MSDC) common lottery, and that students have everything they need for their high school journey to begin. But this year has shifted the focus of our conversations, not just on completing the school year, but on making sure students make it through the summer to ninth grade.

Currently, the District does not have a systematic approach to track or ensure all eighth graders enroll and attend ninth grade. While there are a handful of combined campuses offering grades 6-12 and some middle-to-high school feeder patterns, students are not obligated to follow these patterns. Students could be anywhere or nowhere on the first day of ninth grade. In terms of things we do track, OSSE’s STAR framework calculates an 8th to 9th transition rate, but only as a signal that students are on track for secondary completion for alternative schools serving populations with unique educational needs. Citywide systems are more robust once students get to high school; tracking graduation rates, and college acceptance and persistence. Both the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) and the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) calculate overall re-enrollment rates for schools, but students in terminal grades are excluded. Eighth grade students simply disappear from the data universe each summer, and D.C. does not have a process or entity to track students at this critical junction. As a city, we monitor and measure so many things related to student success, but we simply have no way of knowing who is falling off the radar and needs additional support between June of eighth grade and the fall of ninth grade.

Raise DC’s 9th Grade Counts Network has made great strides in supporting student success between middle school and high school, but their flagship efforts depend on schools’ voluntary participation, and focus on students who have successfully reached ninth grade. With the possibility that some schools and instruction may remain partially remote in the fall, the potential to miss and lose students between eighth and ninth grade is more dire. This time and this project are ripe for the Research-Practice Partnership (RPP). The RPP, with access to OSSE’s enrollment data, has the ability to clearly identify which eighth graders do not return to a D.C. school in the fall without adding a school data collection burden. There is also potential for the RPP to forge and leverage connections with neighboring jurisdictions to share enrollment data and track student mobility and enrollment in the entire D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area, making this process even more comprehensive. With these data, we can work to follow up with students and most urgently, identify those who have not returned due to pandemic-related hardship. As an education community, we can work together to provide support and intervention for these students so we don’t lose them for the next four years. We have the data, and now we have the partnership and resources to turn those data into action and assistance for our most vulnerable students, from whom the pandemic has already taken so much.

Alexander Jue, Senior Policy Analyst, D.C. State Board of Education

The research partner should ensure their engagement process with practice partners is clear and transparent—there should be no loss of trust in the process by which data and information will be shared or used…the State Board would value a research partner that is deliberately inclusive and asks questions of practice partners on the front end, as well as before any final findings, releases, or reports are shared publicly.

Alexander Jue

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the Research-Practice Partnership (RPP) should consider the educational inequities exacerbated by students learning in fully remote and online postures. What have the pandemic’s effects on student and teacher mental health been and what are long-term solutions? How and to what extent have the needs of English-language learners (ELLs) and students with special needs been met, and how will this affect future learning?

Looking beyond COVID-19 and considering the long-term outcomes theme and one of the questions the working group identified (i.e., How are outcomes for students in elementary school related to outcomes in middle school and high school?), the RPP should specifically examine:

  1. The impact of the District’s Pre-K programs on kindergarten readiness and student learning—identifying which programs are having the greatest impact, and
  2. How are schools generally approaching reading instruction (tier 1, 2, and 3)— particularly in the early grades—and how the District’s schools and LEAs are screening and providing intervention support to these students.

The research partner should ensure their engagement process with practice partners is clear and transparent—there should be no loss of trust in the process by which data and information will be shared or used. The State Board values equitable partnerships, elevating community and stakeholder voice in processes, and understanding the diverse and varying needs of constituent groups. Given the pandemic—and the virtual and remote nature by which most of us are working—it is more important than ever to ensure information about processes is shared and interpreted in an open manner and accessible in a variety of formats. The State Board would value a research partner that is deliberately inclusive and asks questions of practice partners on the front end, as well as before any final findings, releases, or reports are shared publicly.

Ask questions and do not make assumptions about what is known. The State Board consistently seeks out community and stakeholder input in its work. Teachers, schools, and their LEAs will be better equipped to ask and understand day-to-day questions related to the pandemic than state-level agencies or those who work for the Research-Practice Partnership (RPP).

Read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia. 

Authors

Tanaz Meghjani

Former Education Analyst
D.C. Policy Center

Tanaz Meghjani served on the D.C. Policy Center staff as an Education Analyst from September 2019 to July 2021.

In this role, Tana conducted data analysis and supported the Policy Center’s Education Policy Initiative. Prior to joining the D.C. Policy Center, Tanaz worked as a Consultant at Quadrant Strategies, a research and strategy firm based in Washington, D.C. She has also worked as an analyst at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and as a researcher at Paste Magazine.

Tanaz is originally from Atlanta, GA and holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Yale University.

Chelsea Coffin

Director of the Education Policy Initiative
D.C. Policy Center

Chelsea Coffin joined the D.C. Policy Center in September 2017 as the Director of the Education Policy Initiative. Her research focuses on how schools connect to broader dynamics in the District of Columbia. She has authored reports on diversity in D.C.’s schools, the D.C. schools with the best improvement for at-risk students, and the transition after high school in D.C. Chelsea has also conducted planning analysis at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, carried out research at the World Bank, and taught secondary school with the Peace Corps in Mozambique.

Chelsea holds a Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College and a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in International Economics and Development.

You can reach Chelsea at chelsea@dcpolicycenter.org.

Endnotes

[1] Urban Institute and 14 education research organizations form the DC Education Research Collaborative. Those 14 partners are: American University’s School of Education, Bellwether Education Partners, the Brookings Institution, D.C. Policy Center, EmpowerK12, Georgetown University, George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, Howard University’s School of Education, Mathematica, Raise DC, Trinity Washington University, the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia’s EdPolicyWorks.