Four lessons on partnering with researchers
In 1988, when Morningside Center entered into its first partnership with researchers to evaluate our Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP), Mahatma Gandhi was the closest thing we had to a theory of change. "If you want to wage a real war against war," Gandhi had said, "you have to begin with the children."
Back then, we knew nothing about "prevention science." We had designed the RCCP by following our instincts, doing what made sense to us as educators and activists. We hired Metis Associates in 1988 to conduct an independent evaluation of the RCCP's impact on children and teachers. We hoped the Metis study would document the good effects we were seeing in schools (it did), and that we could use the information to improve our prospects with funders.
We've come a long way since then. Now, our theory of change is an impressive web of boxes and arrows. And we view research as more than just a fundraising aid. Our 26-year collaboration with researchers has given us crucial insights that have helped us improve our programs. It has also introduced us to powerful new ideas and approaches that have hugely enriched our work. We've had the privilege of working with a wonderful array of researchers, including Stanley Schneider, Joy Zacharia, and Artis Bergman (all three from Metis Associates); Larry Aber (NYU); Josh Brown (Fordham); Stephanie Jones (Harvard); Jason Downer (University of Virginia); Meghan McCormick (NYU); and Anne Gregory (Rutgers).
Here are four lessons learned from our 26 years of fruitful partnerships with researchers:
1. Ask for what you want—you might actually get it.
In 1993, I approached Betty Hamburg, then President of the William T. Grant Foundation, to ask for advice about how we might mount a major scientific study of the RCCP. She generously agreed to invite a dozen researchers she knew to meet with me to discuss options for the study. At that gathering I met Larry Aber. "I don't want a study that assesses the impact of the RCCP under ideal conditions that have no connection with reality," I told Larry. "We're carrying out a messy, flawed program in a bunch of messy, flawed public elementary schools in NYC, and we'd like a study that would attempt to capture what impact we're having, if any, in these all-too-real conditions." I don't remember exactly what Larry said, but the gist was, "I can't think of anything I'd rather do!" Soon after that conversation, we were working with Larry and his protégées, Josh Brown and Stephanie Jones, on a major quasi-experimental study of the RCCP. We are still working with these wonderful people today.
2. Choose your research partners carefully.
Chemistry is important. I immediately knew that I would enjoy working with each of our partners. Beyond chemistry, all of our partners have shared these qualities: willingness to listen and address our needs; strong reputations in their fields and willingness and ability to raise funds for our projects; and patience and persistence in overcoming the challenges of working within the NYC public school system. And all shared our passion for finding ways to help young people thrive.
3. Be ready for surprises.
When you subject your work to a major scientific study, you're taking a risk. Maybe the research will fail to capture the impacts you have hypothesized. Maybe you'll get a finding that is the exact opposite of what you expected to find. The RCCP study produced one finding that we had expected: children whose teachers taught weekly RCCP lessons throughout the year developed more positively than children whose teachers taught the lessons inconsistently or not at all. But another finding perplexed us: Beyond a certain threshold, there was a negative correlation between the amount of time our staff developers spent with a teacher and the impact on students. More coaching time was producing a negative impact. How could this be? Through a closer look at the data and dialogue with our staff developers, we developed a hypothesis: A few burned out or overwhelmed teachers were sucking up a disproportionate amount of staff developer time without translating the support into teaching the lessons to their students. By introducing a curriculum about feelings and conflict, and then failing to follow through by establishing positive classroom norms and teaching students social and emotional skills, these teachers were doing more harm than good. To adapt an old adage, "A little implementation is a dangerous thing." We agreed on several ways to prevent this in the future.
4. Actively seek to learn from the research, and use this knowledge to improve your practice.
Perhaps the most useful contribution researchers have made to our practice came in the wake of the randomized control trial of our 4Rs Program (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) for grades pre-k-8, with Larry Aber, Josh Brown, and Stephanie Jones serving as co-investigators.
To assess the level of classroom quality in 4Rs schools compared with that in the control schools, the researchers had used the Classroom Assessment System (CLASS) developed by Robert Pianta and his colleagues at the University of Virginia (UVA). Through this rubric, researchers found that the 4Rs schools had higher levels of emotional support, instructional support, and overall classroom quality than the control schools. We were thrilled. Even so, the researchers found wide variation in the quality and quantity of lessons taught by the teachers. How could we address this challenge? The researchers suggested that perhaps CLASS could help, along with My Teaching Partner (MTP), a teacher coaching process based on the CLASS, also developed by Pianta and his colleagues. With officers' discretionary grants from the William T. Grant Foundation, we trained some staff in MTP and tried out the process with a few teachers in a couple of our 4Rs schools. The effect was powerful. This led to a collaboration with Jason Downer (UVA), Josh Brown (Fordham), and Stephanie Jones (Harvard) on a successful Goal 2 project in which we adapted My Teaching Partner to The 4Rs. And this led to a Goal 3 large-scale randomized trial of 4Rs + MTP, currently underway. Our work with MTP is lifting our coaching of teachers to a whole new level. It also will enable us to coach teachers remotely—a great asset as we scale up our work beyond New York City.
We are also applying the lessons learned from The 4Rs+MTP project to improve Restore360, a new program we developed during the past three years to support middle and high schools in implementing "restorative practices," which include restorative circles for community-building and restorative conferences for situations in which harm has been done and healing is needed. Restorative practices are widely recognized as a promising alternative to punitive "zero-tolerance" discipline policies that have disproportionately targeted African-American and Latino young people. With support from the William T. Grant Foundation, we are partnering with Anne Gregory (Rutgers) to develop a teacher coaching process for restorative circles based on her RP-Observe, a tool for assessing the quality of teachers' facilitation of restorative circles.
Live and learn. Or, in this case, live, research, and learn. We're looking forward to our next 26 years of collaboration with researchers!