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Promoting Educational Improvement Through a School District-University Collaboration

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Amanda Datnow,Professor in the Department of Education Studies and Associate Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. Research focus: educational reform and policy, particularly with regard to issues of equity and the professional lives of educators.

Matthew Doyle, Dr., Executive Director of the International Center for Educational Research (iCERP) and Assistant Superintendent of Innovation for the Vista Unified School District. Responsible for leading the design and implementation of the district strategic plan, the Blueprint for Educational Excellence and ...

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... Innovation, in response to State of California LCAP funding provisions.

One of the most enduring challenges in education is bridging the research-practice divide. While there is a large and robust research base that could be useful to school improvement, very little of this research is actually used in schools and districts. In large part, this is because research is conducted in a way that is disconnected from the pressing needs of educators. In a traditional model of research, researchers define the research problems themselves, gather research in educational settings, spend a year or more analyzing the data, and then publish their work in venues primarily read by other researchers. This published work may never find its way into the hands of educators who participated in the research, much less in the hands of educators in other educational settings. To help mitigate this problem, some researchers regularly share interim findings with educators or produce practitioner-oriented publications and tools based on research. This connection, however, with practitioners is superficial and can often lead to the perception that the collaboration is disingenuous. While these efforts help to bridge the research-practice divide, a closer, more authentic, intersection is needed. Partnerships in which researchers and practitioners work closely to improve education is a promising strategy that is growing in popularity across the globe.

»One of the most enduring challenges in education is bridging the research-practice divide.«

Collaborations between researchers and educators take a variety of forms, including research-practitioner partnerships, designbased implementation research, continuous improvement projects, and improvement science, among others (Bryk, 2015; Fishman, Penuel, Allen, Cheng & Sabelli, 2013; Penuel & Gallagher, 2017). What is common across these approaches is a commitment to working together on urgent problems of practice, equal partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and an iterative process of adjustment based on local needs (Datnow, Weddle & Lockton, 2019). Because these approaches are designed to be adapted to the local context, there is considerable variation in how they unfold.

»What is common across these approaches is a commitment to working together on urgent problems of practice, equal partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and an iterative process of adjustment based on local needs.«

In this article, we provide information on our own experience working with a school district – university collaboration. We write from the perspectives as a school district leader and a university-based education researcher. We describe what motivated us to collaborate across institutions and the organizational infrastructure that supports the work. We provide examples of two concrete collaborative initiatives – one which is aimed at improving the ways in which data are used to inform school improvement, and another which is aimed at transforming teaching and learning for young children. Finally, we discuss the current and potential benefits derived from the partnership and next steps.

The Infrastructure

Building an infrastructure to support a research-practice partnership is a challenging enterprise. School districts and universities pursue their independent missions and are designed to serve their own specific needs. They must find ways to come together across geographies and purposes. The Vista Unified School District (VUSD) is located in San Diego County, California, and serves approximately 22.000 students from preschool to grade 12.

»Building an infrastructure to support a research-practice partnership is a challenging enterprise.«

With a student population that is 60 percent Hispanic, 64 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, 10 percent homeless, and 19 percent English learners, this district represents the growing diversity of many districts across the state and the US. The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is a large research university, serving over 35.000 undergraduate and graduate students in La Jolla, California, approximately 30 miles from Vista.

VUSD is fairly unique among US school districts in that it has specific Department of Innovation. The Innovation department is one of the key offices within the district, along with Curriculum and Instruction, Human Resources, etc. The leader of the department, Matt Doyle, has a key institutional leadership position within the district as Assistant Superintendent. The Innovation Department’s focus is “promoting a future-forward mindset for students, teachers and staff so that we can collectively create the conditions necessary for learning environments and pathways that prepare students to be confident and prepared to make positive contributions in an increasingly complex world of higher education and careers” (https://www.vistausd.org/Innovation). To this end, the Innovation Department promotes a shift from a teacher-centered, content dominated mindset to a learner-centered mindset that underscores the value of developing flexible, nimble thinkers with the requisite skills and dispositions to chart their own learning pathway. Teachers and support providers step into a new role as activators of learning, rather than the gatekeepers of knowledge (Hattie, 2008).

The UCSD Department of Education Studies is also unique in that it has an expressed focus goal of transforming education in a diverse society. This is guided by the belief that the future relevance of education departments in universities will be contingent on the ability of faculty members to be active participants in transforming education, rather than solely generating knowledge. While this work may happen more naturally in the training of teachers, it does not always occur in the research domain. This has required an expressed shift in how doctoral education unfolds. In the work that faculty do with doctoral students, the focus is on teaching doctoral students how to work side-by-side with practitioners, policymakers, and community members to support educational change. The goal of UCSD’s Department of Education Studies, which involves meaningful collaboration around issues of central importance in the community and nationally, dovetails well with VUSD’s more concrete mission to “to inspire each and every student to persevere as critical thinking individuals who collaborate to solve real world problems.”

Over a period of seven years, personnel from VUSD and UCSD have collaborated to build a structure and culture to support joint work. The collaboration began with a single research project led by Alan Daly and, as relationships were built, the collaboration has now extended to over a dozen different projects, involving many schools, students, teachers, and administrators.

»Over a period of seven years, personnel from VUSD and UCSD have collaborated to build a structure and culture to support joint work.«

Most importantly, VUSD-UCSD collaboration led to the creation of the International Center for Educational Research and Practice (iCERP) in partnership with the San Diego Workforce Partnership and UCSD. Matt Doyle is the Executive Director of iCERP. iCERP’s overall purpose is to promote the intersectionality of thought among educators, researchers and leaders from the world of work to address the challenge of transforming the educational experience from a century- old model to a modern learning platform that engages the student as a partner rather than a member of the audience. Key goals of iCERP are to conduct school-community embedded research that impacts practice quickly; to serve as a global thought-leadership model for the disseminator of knowledge for educational improvement; and to facilitate collaboration among partners. Housed within the Innovation Department of VUSD, iCERP supports VUSD’s goal of transformative education that is early, personal, and relevant. The projects being conducted all fit under the iCERP umbrella, and data-sharing agreement within iCERP facilitates the integration of the research team with the district.

iCERP has several unique features. First, it is primarily is a virtual entity. It does not occupy office space or involve staff. All of those who participate volunteer their time. iCERP is intentionally global in its focus and involves an advisory board of leaders in the field, including educators, city leaders, members of nonprofit organizations, university researchers, and representatives from industry. The board meets virtually on a quarterly basis. iCERP also involves an Action Council comprised of leaders of three entities involved in iCERP: VUSD, UCSD, and the San Diego Workforce Partnership. Currently, iCERP is focused on three broad areas of transformation in education, including early learning, personal learning, and relevant learning. iCERP’s website (www.icerpglobal.com) includes details on these areas through a series of virtual learning “halls” that visitors can explore through videos and graphic representations. While only a year old, iCERP is already making an impact across the United States by presenting at conferences such as the Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Summit (ASU+GSV) and the Next Generation Learning Challenge Institutes. The success of iCERP has also been amplified and elevated through a series of articles published inEducation Week and Next Generation Learning Challenges, both national publications. The first article published, “A New Education Research-Practice Center: Early, Personal, Relevant,” outlines the iCERP structure. The Career Superhighway project led by iCERP has been tracked inEducation Week monthly as a promising practice for career pathways transformation. Access to all of the iCERP publication can be found under: http://blogs.edweek.org/tags. html?tagID=36652&rblog=197

In addition to supporting the broader goal of improving the iCERP infrastructure has helped to facilitate a variety of projects in which researchers and educators come together to address issues of central importance to the Vista Unified School District. We describe two of these initiatives here.

Using Data to Open Doors for Students
Data-driven decision making is a common mantra in education across the globe. While the use of data is often seen as an unqualified good practice in education, in fact, the use of data does not always lead to decisions that positively influence students’ daily experiences and educational trajectories. First, if data are used for the purpose of meeting external accountability mandates only rather than for continuous improvement, educators often find themselves “chasing the numbers” and engaging in practices that show improvement on external measures but may not improve student learning. Second, data can be used to erroneously label students or track them into pathways that do not help them maximize their potential. When these practices occur, data use occurs in ways that limit rather than expand students’ opportunities (Datnow & Park, 2018).

»The use of data does not always lead to decisions that positively influence students’ daily experiences and educational trajectories.«

On the other hand, thoughtful use of data can expand opportunities of students. For this to occur, data use must be informed by the important guiding purposes of equity and excellence for all students (Datnow & Park, 2019). Using data for equity and excellence means always asking what school conditions contribute to or hinder student learning and considering how data are used, even unwittingly, to close rather than to open doors for students. It also involves using data to support the learning of all students, rather than focusing only on students “on the bubble”, or threshold of proficiency markers (Booher-Jennings, 2005). The Vista Unified School District has adopted the National Equity Project definition of equity, “Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential” (https://nationalequityproject.org/about/equity), The district leadership felt it was essential to define equity at the on-set in order to build coherence across students, parents and staff.

»It also involves using data to support the learning of all students, rather than focusing only on students “on the bubble”.«

The collaboration between VUSD and UCSD has supported the goal of using data for equity through an initiative with school leaders. First, research findings on data use for equity were shared with school and district leaders during a summer summit. At the same time, the district’s Innovation Department created a series of data visualization and reporting tools for principals to use to both analyze student achievement and to inform instructional planning. These data visualization tools allowed school leaders to gain a comprehensive picture of student achievement on the annual state assessment and to examine data that is disaggregated by subgroups students (e.g., low income students, English learners). It is not limited to student achievement data, however. The dashboard also includes data on student attendance, suspension and expulsion rates, and other indicators that may be useful in order for school leaders to create a comprehensive picture of their schools.

Next, district leaders (Matt Doyle and a district resource teacher, Jenny Peirson) collaborated with a university researcher (Amanda Datnow) to develop a tool that principals could use to engage their staff in critical conversations about their school’s data on the annual state standardized assessment. A team, including several district leaders, visited every school in the district to engage principals in a dialogue their school’s data and invited them to first share what they noticed and wondered about the data. Guided by the tool, the examination of the data then went deeper into issues of equity, inviting principals to share their thoughts on how the data confirm or challenge assumptions they may have had, what policies and practices may be facilitating or hindering students’ opportunity to learn, and what the data might suggest about how the school may be opening or closing doors for students. The discussion culminated with goal setting for the year and the identification of concrete next steps for working towards those goals. The aim was for principals to then engage in a similar process with their teachers.

This process created an opportunity for a direct application of research findings on data use to influence leadership practice in schools. It also promoted coherence across the system, as it provided a common lens through which leaders could examine data with school staff and hold each other accountable for embracing an equity lens.

The Education-Neuroscience Project
Across this work, it has been abundantly clear that educators are eager for information that will help them better understand how to effectively meet the diverse needs of their students. Schools are awash in data (Coburn & Turner, 2011; Spillane, 2012), but these data are often restricted to narrow forms of evidence on student learning, providing little information about the child’s classroom and community contexts.

»A central goal is to enable educators to use a wide range of data and sources in an effort to open rather than close doors for students.«

When educators use limited data to inform decision making, there is a greater likelihood that data are used in ways that hinder students’ opportunities rather than expand them. In keeping with the initiative described above, a central goal is to enable educators to use a wide range of data and sources in an effort to open rather than close doors for students (Datnow & Park, 2018).

The Education-Neuroscience project goes beyond these limitations to gather real-time, contextual information about children’s development and experiences that has the potential to transform teaching and learning. By understanding children’s social, cognitive, and biological development within multiple ecosystems, the project aims to build on strengths within systems, address potential mismatches between research and practice, and bridge disconnected fields. In a unique collaboration, the team integrates education and developmental cognitive neuroscience using a design-based approach in which researchers and educators create meaningful, trusting partnerships to address urgent problems of practice in earlyprimary education contexts. The aim is for team members to be equally engaged and moving together in an iterative process of reflecting and refining practice on the basis of research. The UCSD team includes education researchers (Amanda Datnow, Alison Wishard Guerra, Shana Cohen), cognitive neuroscientists (Terry Jernigan and Tim Brown), and the VUSD team, led by Matt Doyle, includes district and school administrators and teachers. Forming an interdisciplinary team was necessary in order to address complex questions about children’s development. The team uses a variety of methodological and conceptual tools to create rich, multi-layered understandings of student learning and development

Capitalizing on the unique VUSD-UCSD partnership, and in recognition that by adolescence it is difficult to shift students’ trajectories, the district is committed to closing the achievement gap by creating a continuous learning pathway from the prenatal stage through the primary grades, called the P-3 Continuum. VUSD P-3 teachers and administrators, community members, and UCSD researchers engage in monthly “Teacher Think Tank” and “P-3 Focus Group” meetings to work to eliminate the systemic barriers that exist in creating a seamless P-3 system. These meetings are an important part of the infrastructure that supports educational improvement.

The team’s collaborative work is nested within the iCERP “Early Learning Hall” and directly supports the district’s P-3 goals. For six months, project researchers engaged in ongoing dialogue with the Teacher Think Tank to hear teachers’ pressing questions and problems of practice related to children’s learning and development. Their questions resonated with the researchers’ knowledge of children’s earliest educational learning experiences. Teachers shared questions about children’ssocioemotional development (e.g., Why is there an increase in behavioral problems in the early grades?

»Building upon teachers’ pressing concerns, researchers and educators co-developed a project based on a set of overarching research question.«

How is trauma in the community affecting students’ well-being?);general development (e.g., How do we know our students are growing? How can we better understand students’ individual differences?);language and literacy (e.g., How can we support students from dual language backgrounds?);family-school connections (e.g., How can we help parents understand their children’s development?); andacross-domains (e.g., What is the link between family stress, child emotion regulation, and language development?). Addressing these questions requires a comprehensive multidisciplinary approach.

Building upon teachers’ pressing concerns, researchers and educators co-developed a project based on a set of overarching research question on the social, emotional, cognitive, and biological factors that shape children’s learning across the contexts of school, home, and community. The group is also guided by the question: How can researchers and educators collaboratively examine data on these factors in order to support transformative education and contribute to system integration?

To address these questions, the team is studying children’s learning and development in a comprehensive way with researchers collecting data and teachers directly participating in interpretation and application. Building on the earlier work in the Teacher Think Tank, the team established a Teacher Researcher Collaborative (TRC) comprised of UCSD researchers and eighteen VUSD Transitional Kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers and resource teachers and school and district administrators. The TRC meets monthly in Vista. Teachers whose classrooms are research sites participate in the TRC, but all team members have the opportunity to shape the ongoing direction of the project, collaboratively interpret data, and co-develop strategies based on the data through an iterative process. The cross-grade structure of the TRC allows for movement away from a grade-level silos to thinking about how students learn within a continuum. The benefits of teacher collaboration across and within grades have been well documented in research, but collaboration needs to be purposeful and use teachers’ time wisely (Datnow & Park, 2019; Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018). The collaborative element of this work is important, as not only do teachers’ insights inform the project, teachers also share ideas for improving instruction with each other.

»All team members have the opportunity to shape the ongoing direction of the project, collaboratively interpret data, and co-develop strategies based on the data through an iterative process.«

This project is yielding important results that are influencing teachers’ classroom practices. For example, as teachers co-analyze data with researchers Alison Wishard Guerra and Shana Cohen within the TRC, they have been inspired to more explicitly prepare students for the more abstract, decontextualized language demands of the classroom. They are considering ways to provide more opportunities for their students to engage in dialogue with the teacher and with each other, which is important as many of the students in VUSD are English Learners. These planned instructional shifts have come after recognizing patterns in the data that researchers have shared. As teachers learn from researcher Tim Brown about students’ performance on a variety cognitive measures at three time points during the year, they gain a more full picture of how students’ learning over time. The students and teachers are also both learning about the research process by actively participating in it. Although the project is ongoing, these early successes suggest that the project shows promise in bridging the research practice divide as it pertains to the education of young children in Vista. Moreover, the lessons from the project are continually shared with other educators in the district and with community members via the Teacher Think Tank and the P-3 Focus Group, allowing for the possibility of bringing changes to a wider scale in the future. Perhaps the greatest outcome of this teacher-researcher collaboration is the potential to close the achievement gap before it opens.


With an infrastructure of support and a shared set of beliefs about the value of a close research-practice intersection, VUSD and UCSD are well positioned to sustain their collaboration to support the improvement of education in the community. The example of research-practice collaboration that we have described here is just one model of how such a partnership between a school district and a university might unfold. The benefits we have seen thus far include opportunities for a more nuanced, collaborative examination of data using a lens of equity. The collaboration has also helped to build mutual understanding between researchers and educators who come to understand each other’s worlds better. Educators have access to researchers as potential resources in supporting both their daily work and their broader initiatives, and researchers can refine their work to better align with the educational practice and policy. Naturally, other researchers and practitioners interested in collaboration need to build partnerships that capitalize on their own strengths and opportunities. We believe there is great promise - and joy - that can come from the important work of breaking down the traditional silos that have characterized the worlds of research and practice in education.


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Bryk, A. S. (2015). 2014 AERA distinguished lecture: Accelerating how we learn to improve. In: Educational Researcher 44 (9), pp. 467–477. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X15621543

Coburn, C. E. & Turner, E. O. (2011). Research on data use: A framework and analysis. In: Measurement: Interdisciplinary research and perspectives 9 (4), pp. 173–206.

Datnow, A. & Park, V. (2018). Opening or closing doors for students? Equity and data use in schools. In: Journal of Educational Change 19 (2), pp. 131–152.

Datnow, A. & Park, V. (2019). Professional collaboration with purpose: Teacher learning towards equitable and excellent schooling. New York: Routledge.

Datnow, A., Weddle, H. & Lockton, M. (2019). Continuous improvement “on the ground”: Lessons from low-performing schools. Presentation at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Toronto, Ontario.

Fishman, B. J., Penuel, W. R., Allen, A.-R., Cheng, B. H. & Sabelli, N. (2013). Design-based implementation research: An emerging model for transforming the relationship of research and practice. In: The National Society for the Study of Education 112 (2), pp. 136–156.

Hargreaves, A. & O’Connor, M. T. (2018). Collaborative professionalism: When teaching together means learning for all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning. Abingdon-Oxon: Routledge.

Penuel, W. R. & Gallagher, D. J. (2017). Creating research- practice partnerships in education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Spillane, J. P. (2012). Data in practice: Conceptualizing the data-based decision-making phenomena. In: American Journal of Education 118 (2), pp. 113–141.