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Urban School Improvement Alliance Introduces Toolkit for Districts Working with Outside Researchers
November 19, 2012

Boston, MA – REL Northeast and Islands’ Urban School Improvement Alliance (USIA) has produced a suite of materials to help midsized urban school districts better work with external researchers to achieve district and state research goals. USIA members requested the materials to help them identify their research priorities, cut down on time spent reviewing external data requests, and generate research that districts can use to inform decision-making.

“School districts across our region have more longitudinal student data on hand today than ever before, thanks in large part to the requirements of No Child Left Behind,” said Dr. Julie Kochanek, REL-NEI Director of Research. “We have tried to provide an easy-to-follow process for districts to strategically align their research for years to come. We want USIA member districts to improve their capacity to define, conduct, and collaborate on purposeful research that directly affects their needs, instructional goals, and educational priorities.”

While the wealth of student and school data is a wonderful opportunity for districts to analyze their numbers to inform policy and practice, recurrent budget cuts in recent years and lack of research staff have made it difficult to do so. At the same time districts, particularly those close to universities with education degree programs, have seen a rise in external data requests. Many of these requests are unrelated to district priorities but require staff time and attention to manage. Yet research conducted by external researchers could be a valuable asset if districts were equipped to effectively partner with them.

“We get a lot of data requests but they are very time consuming, and we have to be more strategic about how we approach this work,” said Dr. Marco Andrade, Director of Research, Planning, and Accountability at the Providence (RI) Public Schools and a member of the USIA workgroup that oversaw the development of the materials. His office receives hundreds of data requests annually—28 requests for data in August alone—some from district staff and some from external groups. “These documents will help us to be more proactive and less reactive when it comes to data requests.”

The toolkit is organized into five modules: (1) Identifying District Research Priorities; (2) Vetting Research Requests; (3) Recruiting External Researchers; (4) Sample MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding) and Data Agreements; and (5) Disseminating Research Results Externally. It includes guidance documents on human-subjects research, data destruction, fee schedules for external data requests, FERPA (Federal Educational Records Privacy Act) compliance, media relations, and other topics. The toolkit also includes a sample data request application packet, data request review worksheet, and data-use agreements that districts can adapt for their own use. To inform the materials, REL-NEI staff researched how various districts and states across the country manage data requests.

 A critical piece of the toolkit is the first module, which outlines a process districts can use to identify their own research priorities and establish a distinct research agenda. Often district research offices are so busy with compliance and accountability issues, their staff have little time to step back and reflect on how research could inform the district’s long-term strategic goals. Andrade said he plans to use the module early next year to guide his district in defining its own research agenda and, hopefully, establishing a research consortium with a local university or research organization.

“I want us to have a research agenda that explicitly states, ‘These are the questions that Providence Public Schools are interested in,’” he said. “I want to tie our application process in with our own research agenda.”

USIA Facilitator Andrew Seager said: “District research staff are totally saturated with the daily demands of their jobs and don’t have time to do the research that would be useful to their districts. Our hope is that these products can help those people think about a process for developing a research agenda for themselves and for finding someone to help them.” For more information, contact Seager.

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