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Collaborative Research: How Do New Alliances Cohere?
February 7, 2013


What helps a new research alliance come together to take on the difficult work of defining and carrying out a research agenda? More than a year into its new five-year program of work, REL Northeast and Islands is actively exploring this question through interviews with alliance members across the region, with staff who are serving as facilitators and researchers for the alliances, and through various dissemination products, such as the multimedia presentation “Developing a Research Agenda: Experiences of REL Northeast and Islands Research Alliances.”

This article is the first in a series examining the approaches REL-NEI alliance facilitator and research teams are deploying to support alliances’ growth—typically in a conversational feedback loop with Core Planning Group members of REL-NEI’s eight alliances. Several of the strategies for encouraging collaboration are to create clarity of purpose and shared understanding about the goals of the alliance, evolve member roles over time, ensure good communication, build trust and relationships, create commitment, and enhance the capacity of members to become strong consumers of research and to use data. Although the approach shifts from one alliance to the next, members and staff are seeing cohesion happening within alliances in different ways.

“This time last year we had a conceptual framework, we had relationships with educators across the region, we had some knowledge of the Chicago Consortium for School Research and the insights of researchers into collaborative research, but we did not know how cross-state and cross-organization research alliances would play out in practice,” said REL-NEI Research Alliance Manager Andrew Seager, who heads the professional development planning for staff teams leading the alliances. “We selected experienced REL facilitators and researchers to lead the alliances and received commitments from key and diverse stakeholders to participate, and since then we have been learning the practicalities of helping the alliances develop into cohesive, productive research communities.”

Northeast Rural Districts Research Alliance (NRDRA) member John Sipple, director of the New York State Center for Rural Schools at Cornell University, told REL-NEI’s Governing Board in October: “Participation in the alliance has really been enriching. We often get so engrossed in our own state issues, our own local issues, that to begin to have conversations over months and months around what is unique and what is common among rural schools is very, very useful. And the different roles that we represent—teachers, principals, school board members, policy people, researchers—you get a good, healthy mix of expertise, and all that is elevated around the table as we have our conversations.”

“The alliance is really one of the only places where I can have conversations with other district research directors and talk about things that we all can relate to and find common concerns,” said Paul Schlichtman, coordinator of research, testing, and assessment for Lowell Public Schools in Massachusetts and a member of the Urban School Improvement Alliance (USIA).

“It was a little unclear in the beginning about why we were all here together and what we were doing,” said one member of the Early Childhood Education Alliance (ECEA) at its final convening in December, “but as the year has come to a conclusion, there is much greater clarity and focus and the alliance now has its sea legs and is raring to go.

Jackie Bourassa, facilitator for ECEA, said that her team explained to the members at the beginning that the research alliances are experimental and would take time to develop. “This kind of work takes trust, and there was a real tolerance for the path meandering and not know where we would end up,” she said. ECEA researcher Kyle DeMeo Cook said: “Year 1 was very much a planning year and focused on building relationships. Now we’re really starting to do the work.” This coming year, ECEA will convene its core membership less frequently and instead members are joining advisory committees that will oversee the research projects and a data working group.

NRDRA facilitators are observing real ownership from its members. For every meeting, members have helped to plan the agenda and given presentations, and they’re also sharing their own data. A recent example is when Dr. Sipple from Cornell shared a New York State Center for Rural Schools online tool that allows comparisons among schools and districts’ achievement, enrollment, and financial data, as well as other measures. “The other alliance members loved the tools, and the group is now working to develop a prototype for a similar tool that practitioners in any state could use to view and analyze public data,” said co-facilitator Pam Buffington.

About these leaping-off points, NRDRA co-facilitator Harouna Ba said: “We want to make things useful. We’re trying to integrate needs, research, and sharing, but to also keep it focused.”

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