Growing a Movement for Research-Practice Partnerships

By Bill Penuel, professor of learning sciences and human development

Promoting equity and justice in education calls on scholars to adopt what professors emeriti Ernest House and Ken Howe called a “democratic practice” of educational research. That is, our approach informs public dialogue about the aims and plans for education and is engaged with educators, families, communities and youth about their futures.

Today, there is renewed interest in a particular form of engaged scholarship called “research-practice partnerships.” And while the idea of partnership is not new, the sense of urgency about the need for partnership and scholarship on the dynamics and outcomes of partnerships is.

Partnerships are tackling some of the most challenging problems of educational equity and expanding sites of hope and possibility for more just educational futures. Partnerships are working to expand restorative disciplinary practices and reduce racial disparities that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. They are providing powerful tools to school leaders to help struggling students stay on track for graduation. Our own Inquiry Hub partnership in Denver is focused on helping students see how science and engineering can help address community problems while creating more inclusive classroom cultures.

“Partnerships are tackling some of the most challenging problems of educational equity and expanding sites of hope and possibility for more just educational futures.”

These partnerships are able to take on such big challenges because they bring together people who bring a broad range of political interests, experiences and expertise needed to imagine new possibilities for education. For example, our partnership brings together youth and educators from Denver Public Schools, a youth leadership organization (Project Voyce), a professional development provider (Next Generation Science Exemplar System for Professional Development) and researchers from two universities (CU Boulder and Northwestern University). Partnerships like ours blur the line that separates researchers and practitioners as we all pitch in to do what is needed at any given time.

Partnerships are challenging to create and maintain. Although we might enter with intentions for promoting equity within them, social inequality and status differences among youth, families, educators and researchers shape how we interact in partnerships. To succeed in their endeavors, partnerships must confront institutional and cultural resistance to equity-minded reforms. And people must learn to work together to find and solve problems in ways that are likely to be unfamiliar to everyone involved.

Fortunately, a movement is afoot to support the growth of research-practice partnerships nationwide. New networks, such as the National Network of Education Research Partnerships and the URBAN Research Network, are bringing people together to share and learn from one another. Workshops like the Design-Based Implementation Research workshop we hold each summer in Boulder help researchers and educators learn how to organize collaborative processes to design and test educational innovations in and out of schools. And the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has supported hundreds of educators in building “networked improvement communities” to create more reliable developments in education.

We are a hub within this growing movement here at CU Boulder, thanks to the leadership of our dean and several initiatives led by our research centers that embody the spirit of collaboration. A Queer Endeavor partners with local schools that are implementing gender-expansive policies and practices. CU Engage is reimagining the relationship among teaching, service and research. Through the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, we are contributing to the scholarship of partnerships, developing an understanding of when and how partnerships can be successful.

We stand poised to help prepare the next generation of scholars and educators who contribute to a more democratic vision for education research and practice, at a time when we need leadership for equity and justice more than ever.

Learn more about research-practice partnership and the School of Education research centers at

Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong.