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From Research Alliance to Design Research Partnership: Evolving a Partnership to Address Racial Inequities

Fri, April 5, 2:25 to 3:55pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Floor: 800 Level, Hall F


Drawing from an ongoing racial equity-focused Research-Practice Partnership (RPP), this study contributes to the “conceptualization of rigor” that situates relevance to policy and practice as a central criterion for educational research (Gutierrez & Penuel, 2014). Seattle Public Schools, the Seattle Education Association, and faculty from the University of Washington’s College of Education are working jointly to build capacity to reduce race-based educational disparities. This long-term effort has leveraged trust and mutualism to iteratively evolve from a research alliance focused on evaluation research to a design-based research partnership deepening inquiries across multiple levels and varying contexts. The RPP is now positioned at the heart of district-wide efforts and is influencing how organizational leaders and practitioners use data and evidence to support system-wide racial equity initiatives.

Initiated to study the implementation of school-based Racial Equity Teams (RETs) in Seattle Public Schools, this long-term collaboration between researchers and practitioners leverages research to address persistent problems of practice (Coburn, Penuel, & Geil, 2013). Unlike most RPPs focused on improvement in traditional educational domains such as mathematics, literacy, or college preparedness (Gutierrez & Penuel, 2014), this RPP is explicitly organized around addressing structural racial inequities in systems, both at the district and school building levels.

The partnership evolved from a research alliance (in which researchers acted as external partners charged with conducting and delivering research) into an ongoing design partnership as participants explored how to co-design improvements and expanded the range of district and union partners. Through joint activities, including producing a series of research reports and developing an emergent communication strategy, the partnership began to develop routines and shared norms and values around planning and decision-making. Most recently the RPP has evolved towards a participatory co-design approach in which stakeholders with diverse expertise – including youth, families and communities - design, develop, and test innovations to disrupt exclusive decision-making by conventionally-defined “experts” who inhabit privileged positions (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016).

Theoretical Framework

This paper traces the genealogy of the RPP in reference to a framework of 5 dimensions of effectiveness (Henrick et al., 2017): building trust, conducting research to inform action, supporting the practitioner organization in achieving its goals, producing knowledge for improvement, and building capacity for partnership work. For example, to establish trust (Dimension 1), researchers and practitioners routinely worked together, recognizing and respecting one another’s perspectives and diverse forms of expertise, which impacted building capacity (Dimension 5).


This paper examines how a strong foundation of trust and mutualism – based on a shared commitment to long-term, open-ended working collaboration—can sustain interaction benefiting both researchers and practitioners (Coburn 2013), and enable an RPP to iteratively evolve its approach and become more influential to districtwide efforts. The evolution of this partnership offers ways forward for disrupting racial inequities and attending to how systems, educators, and students “change and adapt interventions in interactions with each other in relation to their dynamic local contexts” (Gutiérrez & Penuel, 2014).


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