Vivian Tseng, Senior Vice President of Program at the William T. Grant Foundation, talks about how researchers can partner with policymakers and practitioners to improve youth outcomes.
Meeri Kim: Improving the lives of young people is an important concern. What have you learned about the best ways to get research about this topic out of the ivory tower of academia and into the hands of decision-makers?
Vivian Tseng: Our Foundation has supported a body of research examining how to improve the use of research evidence in policy and practice — a science of using science if you will. An overarching lesson is that policymaking is a very relationship-driven business. Most decision-makers — whether they are legislators, school administrators, child welfare leaders, judges — get research information from others.
To influence research use, we need to recognize that policy and practice occur within social systems. The webs of relationships that policymakers have with their colleagues, advocates, technical assistance providers, and professional associations shape whether they trust research and how they use it.
“What do my peers know about a program or a practice? Do I trust this person to understand the kinds of issues and challenges that I’m facing in my work?”
Researchers tend to have a very different point of view — they’re often focusing on the quality and rigor of the work based on scientific standards. But if you talk to policymakers and practitioners, they’re most interested in whether their peers trust the information. What do my peers know about a program or a practice? Do I trust this person to understand the kinds of issues and challenges that I’m facing in my work?
We need to focus more on building relationships and networks that connect researchers with policymakers and practitioners because that is a key mechanism by which research gets shared, understood, and used.
MK: Given these findings, what advice would you give to academic researchers to ensure that their research gets heard and translated into action that improves youth outcomes?
VT: Researchers need to shift their mindset from dissemination to engagement. Dissemination is a one-way street — it’s this idea that researchers just need to do good work and then push it out. Engagement, on the other hand, suggests much more of a two-way street with back-and-forth interactions between researchers and decision-makers at various stages of their work.
“It’s important to make sure that the questions being pursued are actually relevant to the issues that decision-makers face.”
For instance, engagement could begin at the front-end of the research when researchers are trying to define their agendas and what questions to study. It’s important to make sure that the questions being pursued are actually relevant to the issues that decision-makers face. In the midst of the research, policymakers or practitioners may raise additional questions that the researchers would not have thought of on their own but that can form the basis for the next set of analyses or the next study.
If a policymaker or practitioner has been involved in earlier stages of the research, they will be more interested and invested in the findings. An engagement approach prevents decision-makers from feeling like a passive audience, which is how a dissemination approach often leaves them.
MK: Could you give an example of successful research-practice partnership?
VT: One great example is the Middle-school Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching (MIST) partnership that started in 2006 and lasted almost a decade. Paul Cobb, a leading researcher in math instruction at Vanderbilt University, initially approached chief academic officer Michael Sorum of the Fort Worth Independent School District to collaborate on a study.
Every year, Cobb and his team travelled to Fort Worth, Texas. They would interview district leaders about their strategies for improving middle school math. Then they collected data on how those strategies were playing out in the district’s schools and classrooms. At the end of each school year, they met with district leaders and administrators to discuss what they had learned. Together, the researchers and practitioners deliberated over what the findings suggested, and the district decided how it would adjust its strategies the following year. Then they would repeat the cycle in an ongoing process of continuous improvement.
“An engagement approach prevents decision-makers from feeling like a passive audience.”
The partnership didn’t go after silver bullets. Instead, it involved researchers and practitioners working on a hard problem together over time. It resulted in gradual increases in student achievement, and there were other unexpected benefits for the district. The practitioners experienced professional growth and fulfillment out of their work with researchers, and the partnership provided stability for the district as its leadership and staff changed hands over the years.
Vivian Tseng is the Senior Vice President of Programs at the William T. Grant Foundation—a U.S. foundation that supports research to improve the lives of young people. Tseng leads the Foundation’s grantmaking and spearheads its initiatives to connect research, policy, and practice. In 2009, she launched the Foundation’s focus on the use of research evidence in policy and practice, and in 2012 created a national network of partnerships between school districts and researchers. Tseng has a deep interest in mentoring young researchers and is committed to strengthening the career pipeline for scholars of color. Under her leadership, the William T. Grant Scholars Program has broadened its diversity and deepened its support for early-career professionals.