Stack of books

Education collaborative bridges gaps between local researchers and teachers

Education department chair Andrew Butler discusses the new St. Louis School Research-Practice Collaborative and the importance of researchers partnering with practitioners to address critical challenges faced by schools.

The St. Louis School Research-Practice Collaborative (SRPC) brings together education researchers from local universities and practitioners from city schools to tackle some of the most difficult questions facing the St. Louis education community. After almost three years of development, the SRPC began its first pilot project in September 2021. The collaborative includes practitioners from district and charter city schools (Saint Louis Public Schools, KIPP, and Confluence Academies), leaders from organizations involved in education (Local 420 Teacher’s Union and STEMSTL), and researchers from local universities (Washington University, Harris-Stowe State University, Saint Louis University, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis).

In this Q&A, Andrew C. Butler, chair of the Department of Education, talks about the collaborative’s innovative approach of harnessing the research power of universities to answer urgent questions for St. Louis schools. One of the collaborative’s many founding members, Butler also speaks about the group’s first major research project on student mobility. 

Andrew C. Butler

How do researchers and teachers work together within the St. Louis School Research-Practice Collaborative? 

Our collaborative uses the research-practice partnership (RPP) model in which researchers and practitioners engage in a long-term, mutual collaboration around problems with the goal of identifying solutions for improvement. In the RPP model, researchers and educators set goals together so that the research is relevant to local schools, and it can inform policy and practice to change student outcomes. Of course, the research conducted may also produce knowledge that is relevant to others and could be shared in places like academic journal articles and books. However, the key is that the research is focused on questions of interest and importance to the schools.

Historically in education research, researchers have often approached practitioners with a set of predetermined questions that they wanted help answering, but that process doesn't actually help schools solve the problems that they are facing. This realization has led to a shift in the field of education towards the idea that the research can be more impactful when it directly addresses pressing questions that come from the schools themselves. Our collaborative brings together people with a variety of expertise to work with the common purpose of improving the lives of school children in St. Louis.

The first problem that the SRPC is addressing is school mobility. What does that term mean?

Student mobility is used to describe the movement of students between schools during the academic year. Students move for all kinds of reasons. Some moves are voluntary, and others are not, such as when a family is forced to relocate their housing. In St. Louis City, some schools have from 40-70% of their students moving schools before the end of a school year.

The educators in our collaborative identified student mobility as a critical challenge in St. Louis. When students move between schools, it can create challenges for not only the student who is moving, but those who remain in schools with high mobility rates, educators who are now tasked to integrate the student and ensure they are meeting the student’s academic needs, and the larger school community. From the broader research literature on student mobility, we know that every time a student moves, it can negatively impact their learning, relationships with peers, and sense of community. Working together, we want to better understand the patterns of why, how, and when students move among city schools. The hope is that by getting more specificity about the nature of the problem locally, practitioners can develop new policies and practices that could support students, families, and teachers.

At a March 29 event, SRPC program leaders discussed progress made so far and next steps. 

How are researchers in the collaborative approaching the problem of school mobility?

Given that student mobility is our pilot project, we’re still developing the structure for engaging in collaborative research. And we are doing so with a focus on both the immediate needs for this project as well as laying the groundwork for future projects. One part of our approach is building the infrastructure needed to collect and analyze education data. The data needed to answer the pressing questions faced by schools comes from many different sources, including the state and the schools themselves. In the long run, we want to be able to connect data across sources because it’s critical to answering systems-level research questions.

Another part of our approach is conducting the research itself. A hallmark of our initial project, and our long-term approach, is the use of different methodologies to provide insights into the problem that we’re trying to understand. We have a quantitative component and a qualitative component of the current student mobility project, and we view them as complementary in that they inform each other. The quantitative component involves leveraging the data that we can get from the state education department and looking at things like the overall mobility rates for individual schools and how students are moving among schools. For example, we have used geographic information system mapping to connect mobility data to schools and census tracts. The qualitative component is doing interviews, focus groups, and surveys of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. We then used the quantitative data to identify schools that have particularly high or low mobility rates and any patterns or changes in the rates. We want to use the qualitative methods to better understand why students move or stay in a school.

What challenges has the collaborative encountered so far, and how has the group responded?

I think there are many challenges to doing this type of work, but we have tried to be thoughtful about anticipating them so we can overcome them. First and foremost, it is a challenge to ensure that the research we are doing is useful to practitioners and that its products get communicated to all the different audiences that we want to reach. To address this challenge, we are ensuring that practitioners are involved and providing input at every step of the process. We also have a knowledge engagement committee that is working on how to ensure that our work is transparent, accessible, and understandable to all.

Another challenge is building trust, community, and common purpose across different institutions with their own goals and governance. Although this aspect of our collaborative will always be a challenge, the process of developing the SRPC prepared us well by building strong relationships around shared values and purpose.

Finally, one other challenge is that researchers do not usually work on the same timelines as practitioners. Researcher’s projects can take years to be shared in academic journals, whereas practitioners need answers now. We resolve this challenge by prioritizing the needs of practitioners and taking an iterative approach in our research process. As we obtain results from the research, we are regularly communicating them to practitioners, seeking feedback, and interpreting their implications for policy and practice together. The journal articles and books can come later, but they are not the immediate priority.

Learn more about the St. Louis School Research-Practice Collaborative on St. Louis Public Radio.