In April 2020, Vincent Matthews needed to know how to safely reopen schools, and fast. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) superintendent, like his peers across the United States, had recently shuttered all schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matthews and his team of SFUSD administrators were working on the learning and safety protocols necessary to bring the district’s 55,000 students back to their campuses. Where could he get reliable evidence about effective school and classroom designs for reopening schools?

While a global pandemic happens once in a lifetime, education leaders regularly need evidence to guide their decision-making. They often confront a research-practice gap in the education sector—the divide between the knowledge that educators need to inform their decisions and the knowledge that educational researchers produce. Educational researchers largely pursue generalizable knowledge, whereas district decisions are highly contextualized.

To overcome this gap, Matthews and his chief of research, planning, and assessment, Ritu Khanna, turned to their partner, the Stanford University Graduate School of Education (Stanford GSE), for help. The Stanford-SFUSD Partnership brings together research and practice to improve SFUSD student achievement. The long-standing partnership matches Stanford GSE researchers with SFUSD district leaders to study problems identified by the school district that are of mutual interest.

The research-practice gap has three dimensions. The knowledge gap concerns knowledge produced from research, which is typically written for other academics and includes technical aspects unsuited to practitioners. Practitioners, in turn, lack the needed relationships or outlets for sharing practical knowledge with researchers. Second, the design gap stems from the high burden of proof and requisite time that researchers and designers want to assess innovations. Practitioners, by contrast, need ready solutions to their problems and are willing to accept a lower burden of proof. Third, the context gap refers to the difficulty that education leaders have in applying the research-backed practices developed in one school district context to others. The US education sector is very decentralized, with a low level of control from the federal and state leaders on which practices are happening in the 13,000 school districts across the country. This makes it hard to test and adopt practices on a wide scale that may have been designed for another context.

The Stanford-SFUSD partnership demonstrates how research-practice partnerships (RPPs) can address all three of these gaps. To address the knowledge gap, the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership relies on a broker—a professional whose job is to help the two institutions work together. This broker assists the individuals work across the boundaries of their institutions through regular meetings and structured communications about roles, responsibilities, and expectations. In the case of the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership, the broker is a full-time director housed in a third-party nonprofit organization, California Education Partners (Ed Partners), who sits three to four days a week at SFUSD and one to two days a week at Stanford.

Read the full article about the research-practice gap by Laura Wentworth, Ritu Khanna, Michelle Nayfack, and Daniel Schwartz at Stanford Social Innovation Review.