Erin Henrick | Partner to Improve; Steven McGee | The Learning Partnership; and William Penuel | University of Colorado Boulder

Volume 1 Issue 3 (2019), pp. 8-13

Two vital issues for research-practice partnerships (RPPs), as evidenced in recent conversations with NNERPP members during the 2019 NNERPP Annual Forum, are equity and effectiveness: many RPPs are working to address issues of equity, though the forms this work takes vary widely across RPPs, and many RPPs are developing means of measuring their effectiveness, though, again, the process can vary significantly across partnerships. Here we argue that equity and effectiveness are, in fact, two concepts that should be considered in tandem, in so far as an “effective” partnership is one that attends to issues of equity. In particular, we examine how RPPs can consider equity goals prioritized by their partnership using the 5 dimensions of RPP effectiveness framework (Henrick, Cobb, Penuel, Jackson, & Clark, 2017), a framework born of a study funded by the William T. Grant Foundation to develop dimensions for assessing education RPPs. During the NNERPP Annual Forum this year, we prepared and led a breakout session offering a closer look at the five dimensions and discussed with participants how each implicitly addresses one or more facets of equity. This article highlights what we discussed and learned during the session.

Defining Equity

We started the session by asking participants to write down what equity meant to them. When discussing equity as a desired goal, it is important to first clarify the term, given the many ways in which equity is understood.

The following definition consolidates many of the ideas generated in this session by participants – a diverse group of educational professionals and researchers from schools, district offices, state agencies, universities, and research firms. 

Equity in education is allocating resources appropriately so every child has access to the supports, resources, and opportunities needed to be successful and thrive. Beyond this, equity ensures that resources are tailored to meet individual needs, build on the cultural assets of students, and are designed in such a way that all students have the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential.

Defining Equity Goals

Next, we considered the equity-focused goals that RPPs have the potential to address together,  arriving at three broad goals:  

  1. RPPs can support the development of equitable relationships between researchers and practitioners by explicitly addressing historical imbalances of power between the two communities and focusing on problems faced by practice organizations. 
  2. RPPs can support equitable outcomes (e.g., instruction and opportunities) for students by engaging in research that specifically investigates and addresses inequities faced by schools, districts, and states. 
  3. RPPs can support the development of equitable systems by reconceptualizing how research institutions, practice institutions, and communities work together for shared goals, removing barriers that limit progress, and building capacities for individuals and organizations to better collaborate.
The Five Dimensions of RPP Effectiveness

In order to examine how these goals fit within the Henrick et al. (2017) RPP Effectiveness Framework, we provided participants a brief introduction to the framework and its dimensions (see table below for a list of the five dimensions).   

RPP Effectiveness Framework: Five Dimensions

1. Building trust and cultivating partnership relationships

2. Conducting rigorous research to inform action

3. Supporting the partner practice organization in achieving goals

4. Producing knowledge that can more broadly inform educational improvement efforts 

5. Building the capacity of participating researchers, practitioners, practice organizations, and research organizations to engage in partnership work

Although equity is not specifically named in the dimensions, in our view, the three equity goals outlined above are infused throughout each dimension. More specifically, we argue that by working towards each dimension of effectiveness, those engaged in partnership work are also, in fact, working towards the equity-focused goals listed earlier. For example, through efforts aligned with the first dimension, RPPs also support the development of equitable relationships as well. Similarly, efforts aligned with the second dimension also lead to the development of equitable relationships and in addition, support equitable outcomes. The third dimension is most closely related to supporting the achievement of equitable outcomes, while the fourth and fifth dimensions suggest engaging in RPP work might also lead to the development of more equitable systems. We discuss each dimension’s inclusion of equity-focused goals in greater detail below.

Dimension 1: Building trust and cultivating partnership relationships

When RPPs work to build trust and cultivate partnership relationships, they are also supporting the development of equitable relationships that directly address the longstanding inequities that have persisted between researchers and those being researched, contributing to the marginalization and exclusion of particular groups and voices in school improvement efforts. Partnership relationships are not merely interpersonal; they are also embedded within long sociopolitical and institutional histories that shape how participants approach educational improvement work. For example, research has underscored how essential it is for members of partnerships to acknowledge racialized tension and power dynamics inherent in partnerships and spend time building and cultivating mutual trust and racial solidarity (Vakil et. al 2016). 

Additionally, RPPs have the potential (and indeed inherent goal) to “create the conditions for more democratic work” (Tseng & Kohlmoos, 2018) that shifts away from top-down initiatives towards more collaborative, inclusive educational improvement efforts.

Dimension 2: Conducting rigorous research to inform action

As one of the key elements of an RPP, conducting research to inform action also supports the development of equitable relationships, specifically through the collaborative research approach that integrates both researchers and practitioners. As we see it, the way research is typically produced is often inequitable, in that it does not take into account the wants or needs of practitioners, or involve them in the research process itself. In RPPs, involving partners in different aspects of research – such as defining research goals, planning data collection, and interpreting findings – can help ensure that the research conducted relates directly to the pressing problems educators face, and in the process, can also lead to more equitable relationships between researchers and practitioners. 

Moreover, when RPPs design research activities to inform action (and if practitioners have a genuine voice in the problems RPPs are addressing), their focus will more likely be on supporting equitable outcomes, as most schools and districts are urgently working to reduce gaps in student learning opportunities. RPPs can design research that addresses equity issues via methods such as documenting opportunities to learn and assessing and making use of data on student experiences in classrooms and other educational settings. This approach includes using theoretical lenses to explicitly examine equity and social justice, in order to better illuminate sources of inequity. RPPs should be specific about the equity concerns on which they are focusing and align their aims and analyses accordingly.

Dimension 3: Supporting the partner practice organization in achieving its goals

In supporting the partner practice organization in achieving its goals, RPPs are also likely supporting equity-specific goals, typically those around equitable outcomes for the children they serve. Within an RPP context, this might mean providing new ways of thinking about equity and broadening conversations about what kinds of equity projects are possible with a diverse group of stakeholders. Researchers within RPPs can also provide additional supports that may be necessary when attempting to push forward an equity-specific research agenda, such as serving as a broker between different groups (e.g., district central office units or district and community groups) when goals are in conflict.

Dimension 4: Producing knowledge that can more broadly inform educational improvement efforts

Working towards this dimension inherently supports the development of equitable systems by making evidence-based information available to all, regardless of access to the resources and expertise needed to produce the research. This dimension aligns with the idea of democratizing evidence, defined as “recognizing the promise of education research as a vehicle for public engagement and educational equity. Good evidence used in meaningful ways can inform new education programs, guide teachers’ day-to-day decisions in classrooms, and assist parents in advocating for their children’s needs” (Tseng & Kohlmoos, 2018). 

RPPs can specifically attend to issues of equity in their dissemination and engagement practices by publishing findings in a range of venues that extend beyond the research community. Research in public health has found, for example, that practitioners and policy makers can be reached more effectively via news media, social media, issue or policy briefs, one-on-one meetings, workshops, and seminars (Brownson, Eyler, Harris, Moore, & Tabak, 2018).

Dimension 5: Building the capacity of participating researchers, practitioners, practice organizations, and research organizations to engage in partnership work

Finally, partnership efforts described under dimension five can also support the development of equitable systems by orienting RPPs towards building equity-specific capacities at both the individual and system levels. Engaging in RPP activities requires change from “business as usual” for everyone involved, leading to different roles, skills, and organizational structures that “enable different stakeholders to critically appraise research and deliberate over its implications for improving education” (Tseng & Kohlmoos, 2018). 

For example, through qualitative inquiry and reflection, RPPs can support individuals within the partnership in understanding how their own identities shape their perspectives and developing cognitive empathy for perspectives that differ from their own. 

We acknowledge that RPPs alone will struggle to reduce long-standing inequities between research and practice institutions in the absence of support from the top of the institutions for such an agenda, but we strongly believe that RPP leaders can play a large role in the conversation.

IN PRACTICE: An example from The Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science

In what follows, we share several examples of RPP activities aiming to address equity-related goals from the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science (CAFÉCS), an NSF funded RPP seeking to support Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in providing high quality computer science experiences to every student. Steven McGee is a co-PI of this RPP, and Erin Henrick is the external evaluator of this partnership. Both presented during the breakout session described here at the NNERPP Annual Forum. 

CAFÉCS promotes equitable relationships by focusing on district priorities and problems specifically identified by the Office of Computer Science at CPS. The RPP leadership team consists of faculty from DePaul University, The University of Illinois-Chicago, and Loyola University, educational researchers from The Learning Partnership, and personnel from the Office of Computer Science at CPS. CAFÉCS leadership team members meet weekly and describe collaborative decision-making as a hallmark of their “partnership ethos.” This aspect of their partnership identity impacts how they make decisions in team meetings and goes a long way towards addressing potential power imbalances that could otherwise stymie productive collaborations among members from a variety of institutions across Chicago.

CAFÉCS promotes equitable outcomes by supporting the Office of Computer Science in providing all students in CPS with a high quality CS experiences. All CPS students are now required to take a computer science course, with the class of 2020 being the first cohort for whom the graduation requirement applies. Partnership work currently underway to support the implementation of this policy includes research and co-design activities around instructional coaching in computer science, professional learning communities for teachers of the adopted Exploring Computer Science (ECS) curriculum, and analyses of student demographics and success rates for ECS and AP computer science courses. 

CAFÉCS aims to support the development of equitable systems both within the partnership and more broadly. Within the partnership, CAFÉCS holds monthly meetings with education researchers, university computer science faculty, and the entire Office of Computer Science in CPS. This time is spent identifying problems to work on together, sharing and discussing research findings, and engaging in collaborative activities. For example, in a recent meeting, the group began to collaboratively develop a research plan for this upcoming school year that aligns with CPS’s equity goals. 

Outside of the partnership, one way CAFÉCS supports the development of equitable systems is by participating in the NSF-funded R+P Collaboratory led workshops for partnerships interested in applying for NSF computer science RPP funding. Sharing lessons learned and providing feedback to other developing teams helps build capacity for partnership work in computer science education across the U.S.

Where do we go from here?

As we collectively move forward in working toward equity-focused goals in effective RPPs, several crucial next steps require attention. Participants in our session at the NNERPP Annual Forum proposed the following considerations: the need for an inclusive process to collaboratively define equity, for different language to describe and measure it, for more unpacking of what is meant by success, and for community agency and voice to identify the systems in place that contain bias and to address inequitable resource allocation practices. 

RPPs have the potential to productively address issues of equity that impact education today. Therefore, it is critical that issues of equity receive attention, both when we assess RPP effectiveness and as we consider how the five dimensions of RPP effectiveness can support the development of equitable partnerships – partnerships that offer voice to those not currently being heard, work toward equitable outcomes for the students we serve, and design equitable systems that provide the training and resources for these collaborative activities to take place.

Additional resources: Some tools helping RPPs address issues of equity

Resources related to developing equitable partnership relationships:

Resources related to equitable outcomes:

Resources related to supporting the development of equitable systems:

An RPP Toolkit to Help RPPs Design for Equity

White Paper: How Research-Practice Partnerships Can Support ESSA Implementation for Educational Improvement and Equity: A guide for school districts, state education leaders, and researchers 

Practice Guide: Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide Embracing Equity: 7 Steps to Advance and Embed Race Equity and Inclusion Within Your Organization

Blog Post: How to Build Equitable Partnerships

Website: RPP study on ambitious and equitable math instruction 

Organization: Expanding the bench 

Infographic: Building Equity in Research Practice Partnerships

Blog post: Partnership for Equity: Learning from Oakland’s Full Service Community Schools

University of Washington’s Equitable Parent–School Collaboration research project 

Connecting Research and Practice for Educational Improvement


Chicago Beyond “Why Am I Being Researched?” Guidebook


Erin Henrick is Founder and President of Partner to Improve, an education research and consulting group supporting improvement and systemic change in education through powerful partnerships; Steven McGee is President of The Learning Partnership and Research Director of the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science; and Bill Penuel is Professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences in the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, PI at the National Center for Research in Policy & Practice (NCRPP), Co-PI of the Research+Practice Collaboratory, and a contributing author to the LearnDBIR website.

Brownson, R. C., Eyler, A. A., Harris, J. K., Moore, J. B., & Tabak, R. G. (2018). Research full report: getting the word out: new approaches for disseminating public health science. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 24(2), 102.

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. 

Tseng, V. and Kohlmoos, J. (2018). Democratizing Evidence in Education and Why it Matters. Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice Education Week Blog.

Vakil, S., McKinney de Royston, M., Suad Nasir, N. I., & Kirshner, B. (2016). Rethinking race and power in design-based research: Reflections from the field. Cognition and Instruction, 34(3), 194-209.

Suggested citation: Henrick, E., McGee, S., & Penuel, W. (2019). Attending to Issues of Equity in Evaluating Research-Practice Partnership Outcomes. NNERPP Extra, 1(3), 8-13.

NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships  |