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The Challenges of Bridging the Research–Practice Gap Through Insider–Outsider Partnerships in Education

by David Phelps - 2019

Background: Partnerships between schools and universities are increasingly advocated as a way to bridge the research–practice gap in education. Empirical research has revealed a wide variety of benefits that these partnerships can bring to merging research and practice. Yet, empirical studies also demonstrate that merging research and practice through partnerships at local sites is neither straightforward nor a guaranteed process. Rather, it is a fragile process fraught with tension that often stems from the relationship between the school and university partners.

Purpose: Kornfeld and Leyden reflected that if schools and universities are to successfully partner, they “should be ever mindful of . . . the infinite complexities and potential pitfalls in the relationship.” The purpose of this literature review is to document these complexities and pitfalls more fully so that schools and universities involved in partnerships can have more realistic expectations of the demanding work entailed in maintaining healthy relationships. Realistic expectations can help school and university partners to more successfully navigate the fragility of their work. Furthermore, the research literature suggests that when partners work collaboratively to address these challenges, they will strengthen their relationships.

Research Design: A literature review was conducted using an intellectual social network analysis and an extensive database search. A total of 56 studies were selected for analysis using relevant inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Findings: The 56 studies reveal that challenges to maintaining partnerships emerge from the differences in schools and universities along three high-level categories: organizational structures, discourse practices, and power relations. Yet, schools and universities can mitigate these challenges by working together to collaboratively build organizational infrastructure, shared meaning, and trusting relationships.

Recommendations: Schools and universities that partner to close the gap between research and practice at local sites should be mindful of the ways that their differences in organizational structures, discourse practices, and power relations can complicate their work together. At the same time, schools and universities can strengthen their relationships by intentionally working to collaboratively build organizational infrastructure, shared meaning, and trusting relationships. By working to reconcile the differences between themselves, schools and universities can better learn how to navigate the fragility inherent in their partnership.

The researchpractice gap is an enduring problem in the field of education. The gap refers to educational research that is not practice informed, and educational practice that is not research informed. In 1986, a coalition of major research universities incorporating professional schools of education fashioned the following solution in Tomorrows Teachers (Holmes Group, 1986):

Make partnerships with the teachers and administrators in particular schools. Develop these as Professional Development Schoolsregular but ambitious public elementary and secondary schools where novice teachers learn to teach and where university and school faculty members together investigate questions of teaching and learning that arise in the school.

This was not the first call to bridge the researchpractice gap in education, but it was the first major call to advocate doing so through partnerships within the context of a school setting rather than exclusively in a laboratory school or through college courses (Campoy, 2000). In other words, the Holmes Group advocated for addressing the researchpractice gap by forming partnerships between schools and universities that situate their work directly within partnering school sites.

Empirical research investigating these partnerships reveals a variety of benefits that are realized when the researchpractice gap is meaningfully reconciled within local school sites. Teacher candidates who are placed in experienced teachers classrooms increase their effectiveness as teachers and their sense of ownership over their school and classroom (Castle, Fox, & Souder, 2006). Classroom teachers who systematically inquire into the teaching and learning happening in their own classrooms come to value and use educational research (Catelli, 1995), and they become more in tune with their students perspectives, needs and motivations (Levin & Rock, 2003). School districts that partner with universities to use research-based resources in order to make sense of student data and to improve instructional reform based on student data can develop more intentional curriculum (Gamoran et al., 2003; Kerr, Marsh, Ikemoto, Darilek, & Barney, 2006; Marsh et al., 2005). Students who participate in curriculum activities intentionally designed by researcher and teacher partnerships show improved learning outcomes on items targeted by that curriculum (e.g.  Snow, Lawrence, & White, 2009). These benefits demonstrate the value of research that is practice informed and of practice that is research informed.

Yet, merging research and practice through partnerships at local school sites is not a straightforward nor a guaranteed process. As this literature review will show, it is fragile and fraught with tension. The source of this fragility is found in the double work that school and university partners must doin addition to closing the gap between research and practice, they must also reconcile the differences between themselves. Many scholars in the field have emphasized this difference and advocate for the need to bridge two cultures: School systems and universities are not cut from the same cultural cloth. The norms, roles, and expectations of educators in each of these educational realms could not be more different (Sirotnik, 1991, p. 19), and a school/university partnership is a precarious organization. Bridging two cultures, it remains marginal to each. This marginalization, though difficult to manage, is essential for survival (L. Miller, 2001, p. 116). A study that surveyed more than 1,000 school staff and university faculty whose organizations took part in the Holmes Groups partnership initiative revealed a number of marked differences in how school and university members organize their time, position their professional focus, and experience personal power (Brookhart & Loadman, 1990). Using broader terms, this study points us to the differences in the organizational structures, discourse practices, and power relations of schools and universities. Bridging these differences, as this literature review will show, is crucial if schools and universities are to build organizational structures, shared meaning, and trusting relationships together to do the work of merging research and practice.

We can ask a number of productive questions about these differences.


What are the ways that bridging these differences can become complicated and challenging for school and university partners?


What are the ways that school and university partners develop for working productively across these differences?


What are the ways that partners can still meaningfully reconcile the researchpractice gap, despite the complications and challenges the partnership faces?

This literature review aims to answer the first question as a way to lay the groundwork for others to engage more productively with the second and third questions (see articles, this issue). This approach pushes both theory and practice forward. The processes and strategies that partners use to bridge their own differences and to bridge the researchpractice gap is currently undertheorized (Coburn & Penuel, 2016). As Coburn and Penuel (2016) in their overview of researchpractice partnerships put it,

We need targeted studies of specific strategies that partnerships use. Existing research tends to focus on the challenges, providing little insight into how tools, strategies, and routines used by participants address these challenges. Studies could investigate the relative strengths and weaknesses of strategies for addressing such common challenges as persistent turnover, the need to create shared language or work practices, fostering trust, and ways to work with and across multiple levels of educational systems. (p. 52)

This line of inquiry also translates into practical advice for aspiring partners. As Kornfeld and Leyden (2001) reflected on their own educational partnership,

Each party should be ever mindful of the ultimate goals that they have established together, as well as the infinite complexities and potential pitfalls in the relationship. Each successful relationship, depending on the personalities, abilities, experiences, and aspirations of the persons involved, will attain these goals in unique and intriguing ways. (p. 205)

The purpose of this literature review, in the language of these scholars, is to capture the infinite complexities and potential pitfalls in such partnerships up front, allowing other researchers (including articles in this issue) to focus on the unique and intriguing ways that each partnership developed to bridge their differences and meaningfully reconcile research and practice within a local school. Before embarking on the complexities and pitfalls of partnerships, we must attend to the various models and terms that have been historically used to describe these partnerships.


School and university partnerships that explore the relationship between research and practice by focusing on site-specific questions of teaching and learning go by a variety of names within the research literature. There are specific partnership models, such as professional development schools, researchpractice partnerships, and collaborative action research. There are also more general terms that describe simultaneously any number of these models, such as schooluniversity partnerships (also collaborations, coalitions, cooperatives) and engaged scholarship.

Again, these models share a common aim to use partnerships to investigate questions of teaching and learning at specific school sites. This aim pushes universities beyond consultant roles for schools, and it pushes schools beyond test sites for university research. Neither institution is a service provider for the other. Under this aim, a number of research-related activities may be taken up, such as partners working to design and implement curricular changes, instructional designs, school improvement programs, and evaluation systems together (Clift & Say, 1988, p. 3). We have already described some of the successful outcomes when these aims are achieved.

Where these models differ, to put it broadly, is in the specific area of emphasis they seek to merge research and practice: Professional development schools focus on reforming teacher education, researchpractice partnerships on reforming educational research, and collaborative action research on reforming professional development. More specifically, for professional development schools, teacher education should, among other things, locate teacher candidates within the heart of practitioners work rather than solely in university classrooms. For researchpractice partnerships, educational research should focus on how educational reforms impact teaching and learning in action rather than in theory or in controlled experiments. For collaborative action research partnerships, professional development should not be imposed on teachers, but rather should originate from teachers own inquiries, as supported by professional researchers, into the teaching and learning happening at their schools.

Further, the terms schooluniversity partnership and engaged scholarship have been applied in varying and broad ways to encompass any number of the mentioned reforms depending on the specific project (Clark, 1988; Sandmann, 2008). This conceptual complexity is further complicated by three factors. First, no unified collective body of research studies educational partnerships. Instead, the scholarship of educational partnerships is fragmented into different bodies of research grouped around a specific model or term (such as professional development schools). Second, scholars attempting to make sense of the terms within various research bases have argued that the terms are used inconsistently from partnership to partnership. This is true for professional development schools (Breault & Breault, 2011), engaged scholarship (Sandmann, 2008), and schooluniversity partnerships (Clark, 1988). Third, a literature review of partnerships between schools and universities found that scholars in the field inadequately define partnership, if they define it at all in their work (Clifford & Millar, 2008).

Given the problematic nature of the terminology used to describe partnerships between schools and universities that work at school sites to merge research and practice, I will follow the lead of Coburn, Bae, and Turner (2008) and adopt the term insideroutsider partnerships to refer generally to this type of partnership. The term insider signifies members of the school organization (including the district) who partner with members of outside organizations (such as the university) while locating the work of bridging the researchpractice gap directly within the school organization (Coburn et al., 2008). This term has the upshot of focusing the readers attention on the central message of this literature review: that such partnerships face the task not only of bridging the researchpractice gap, but also of bridging the insideroutsider gapthe gap that lies between partners differing organizational structures, discourse practices, and power relations.

These terminology considerations impacted the methodology of this literature review as well (which is further documented in the appendix). Research articles were gathered from searches designed to pull out studies and partner narratives from all models and general names. As such, the challenges of these types of partnerships are synthesized here across the various terms: professional development schools, researchpractice partnerships, collaborative action research, schooluniversity partnership, and so on. Insideroutsider partnerships will be used as an umbrella term to describe the various partnerships featured in this literature review.

Last, it should be mentioned that the word partnership can be used to refer to different stages of the partnership, such as the initial stage of selecting a partnership, followed by various stages, such as building a collaboration together, designing and implementing reforms, and evaluating, scaling, and sustaining the work. Complicating issues can emerge at any stage in a partnership. This literature review, in the interest of answering the research questions set forth earlier, analyses the problems at play when partners work to build a collaboration together.


Through synthesizing the theoretical literature and the practical case studies analyzed in the literature review, three broad categories of partner differences emerge: organizational structure, discourse practices, and power relations. Collaboration in the face of these differences demands insideroutsider partnerships to engage in building organizational infrastructure, shared meaning, and trusting relationships together. In the descriptions that follow, each demanding task for insideroutsider partnerships in educationbuilding organizational infrastructure, building shared meaning, and building trusting relationshipsis framed with a brief discussion of the theoretical literature, then analyzed through practical case studies, and, finally, summarized in a table for the readers convenience.


Building organizational infrastructure refers to the ways in which goals, priorities, roles, responsibilities, decision-making structure, work routines, and communication channels are coordinated to promote collective activity. Organizational theory posits that building an organizational infrastructure from scratch takes time and is prone to missteps, conflicts, and inefficiencies as partners work through the learning curve required of this task (Pettigrew, 1979; Stinchcombe, 1965). Building an organizational infrastructure within a larger ecosystem of preexisting organizational cultures can also lead to conflict between the various infrastructures (Schein, 1985). This conflict can be amplified in the context of insideroutsider partnerships because schools and universities are both traditionally resistant to collaboration and to change (Herman, Dowhower, Killian, & Badiali, 1994).

This resistance to collaboration in schools is largely attributed to the egg carton organization of classrooms that separates teachers from one another (Lortie, 1977), leaving teachers to perform their work in isolation (Jones & Maloy, 1988; McDonald, 1987; Prawat, 1991). In universities, the reward structure based on research, teaching, and service does not readily count school collaborations under any of these activities, leaving professors with little incentive to collaborate (Zeichner, 1995). The status quo of noncollaborative work has been difficult to change (Saltmarsh, Wooding, & McLellan, 2014). This is in part because schools are inclined to pursue partnerships that do not radically change or restructure their established institutional practices (Edwards & Kinti, 2010; Lieberman, 1992; Sarason, 1982). When reform-focused partnerships such as researchpractice partnerships do emerge, they often do so at the margins of their institutions, where they are not effectively able to succeed in reforming either institution (Darling-Hammond, 1994).

The insideroutsider studies reviewed here demonstrate that building organizational infrastructure is indeed demanding work. Five major themes emerged across the studies. These include prioritizing multiple goals, creating new work routines and structures, expanding partners roles, managing workload and limited resources, and navigating institutional politics and policies.

First, insideroutsider partnerships typically specify multiple goals for the partnership. This can help to bring diverse partners together and support multiple ways for partners to participate (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001). Yet, pursuing multiple goals can make the work feel complicated and fragmented, especially when partners prioritize and attend to the goals differently (Bartholomew & Sandholtz, 2009; Engle, 2010; Hasslen, Bacharach, Rotto, & Fribley, 2001; Keating & Clark, 1988; Martin, Snow, & Franklin Torrez, 2011). This sense of fragmentation becomes heightened when additional goals and pressures are given to the insideroutsider partnership by external stakeholders such as funders (Mockler, 2013), university deans (Firestone & Fisler, 2002), district administrators (Keating & Clark, 1988; Lau & Stille, 2014; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013), and union representatives (Snyder, 1994). Additional tensions emerge as partners divide their time and energy between the goals of the partnership and their own personal goals within their home institution (Kaimal, Barber, Schulman, & Reed, 2012; Kornfeld & Leyden, 2001), leading some partners to lose sight of the original unifying goals of the partnership (King, 1997; Snyder, 1994).

Second, the process of creating a new organizational infrastructure to support partners in meeting the goals of the insideroutsider partnership can be rocky and imperfect, leading to inefficiencies in communication, scheduling, and information sharing (King, 1997), especially for partners who work remotely (Kaimal et al., 2012; Milroy et al., 2015). The difficulty in creating smooth operational structures and work routines may be especially trying for schools and universities that have to coordinate across differing work calendars and work tempos (Clift, Johnson, Holland, & Veal, 1992; Hattrup & Bickel, 1993; Osajima, 1989; Snyder & Goldman, 1997) and reconcile differing governance and decision-making structures (Hasslen et al., 2001; Keating & Clark, 1988).

Next, expanding partners roles and responsibilities to function within this new organizational culture is not always a straightforward process. Many partners feel reluctance to change their roles (Carlone & Webb, 2006; Chan & Clarke, 2014; King, 1997; Snyder, 1994), while others feel ambiguity about what their new responsibilities are (Clift et al., 1992; Coburn et al., 2008; Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Osajima, 1989), and still others struggle with the learning curve entailed (Hasslen et al., 2001; Hayes & Kelly, 2000; Kornfeld & Leyden, 2001; Milroy et al., 2015; Paugh, 2004).

Pursuing multiple goals, building new routines and communication channels, and expanding roles take more time and energy than partners initially realize (Bickel & Hattrup, 1995). If unchecked, the intensity of the work can lead to role overload (Clift et al., 1992; Fenwick, 2004; Kornfeld & Leyden, 2001). This is in part because multiple reform efforts have a way of straining limited resources and of exceeding frontline staffs workload (Knapp, Bamburg, Ferguson, & Hill, 1998). Staff turnover, of course, costs partnerships more time and energy because they have to duplicate efforts to integrate new staff (Snyder & Goldman, 1997).

Last, partners found it challenging to navigate institutional politics and policies. School districts, for example, have policies in place that severely limit the amount of release time available for teachers to collaborate with one another and to meet with professors (Clift et al., 1992; King, 1997). Universities, likewise, have incentive systems that reward basic research and discourage partners from collaborating with schools (Heckman, 1988; King, 1997; Méndez & Rincones, 2013). In addition, faculty load, which keeps professors close to campus teaching classes, also works against professors ability to visit schools (Hasslen et al., 2001; Martin et al., 2011). In short, staff at schools and at universities struggle to be recognized and rewarded for the collaborative work they perform (Keating & Clark, 1988). This can also include preservice teachers who in at least one case were not given credit for their participation in a professional development school (Lancy, 1997). See Table 1 for a summary of the challenges to building organizational infrastructure.

Table 1. Challenges to Building Organizational Infrastructure: Summary

Building Organizational Infrastructure Is Difficult When Partners. . .

Prioritize Different Goals

Bartholomew & Sandholtz, 2009; Engle, 2010; Hasslen et al., 2001; Keating & Clark, 1988; Martin et al., 2011

Are Given External Goals

Firestone & Fisler, 2002; Keating & Clark, 1988; Lau & Stille, 2014; Mockler, 2013; Snyder, 1994; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013

Lose Sight of Goals

King, 1997; Snyder, 1994

Work Remotely

Kaimal et al., 2012; Milroy et al., 2015

Follow Different Schedules

Clift et al., 1992; Hattrup & Bickel, 1993; Osajima, 1989; Snyder & Goldman, 1997

Follow Different Governance Structures

Hasslen et al., 2001; Keating & Clark, 1988

Are Reluctant to Assume New Roles

Carlone & Webb, 2006; Chan & Clarke, 2014; King, 1997; Snyder, 1994

Are Unclear About Their Roles

Clift et al., 1992; Coburn et al., 2008; Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Osajima, 1989

Struggle to Learn New Roles

Hasslen et al., 2001; Hayes & Kelly, 2000; Kornfeld & Leyden, 2001; Milroy et al., 2015; Paugh, 2004

Face Work Overload

Clift et al., 1992; Fenwick, 2004; Kornfeld & Leyden, 2001

Face Staff Turnover

Snyder & Goldman, 1997

Face Barriers From Their Home Institutions

Clift et al., 1992; Hasslen et al., 2001; Heckman, 1988; Keating & Clark, 1988; King, 1997; Lancy, 1997; Méndez & Rincones, 2013


Building shared meaning between partners about the goals of their activity is incredibly demanding work according to cultural historical activity theory (Engeström, 2008). This is in part because even if partners agree to pursue shared goals, their understanding of the goals can be at odds (Galison, 1997), and partners will pursue their shared goals in ways that line up with their underlying beliefs and values (Edwards, 2012). Unfortunately, partners do not necessarily realize they hold differing beliefs and values until after conflict and tension emerge in their collaboration (Edwards & Kinti, 2010). Realizing that there are differences, however, is only half the work. Because partners come from institutions that use different ways of speaking, they must develop a contact language (Galison, 1997) or rely on individuals familiar enough with both institutions to readily translate between partners (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011; Beach, 2003; Clark, 1988). As partners come to appreciate each others point of view, the partnership engages in expansive learning about its shared goals (Engeström, 1987).

Put differently, partnerships bring different voices together, and each voice may differ in how it understands, speaks about, and works toward the goals of the collaboration. Thus, a major task of partnering is to learn how to recognize and communicate across these different voices. Tensions and challenges can arise when voices are not adequately translated between partners. As presented in the two-cultures premise (L. Miller, 2001; Sarason, 1982; Sirotnik, 1991), schools and universities have been conceptualized to have different, if not opposing, points of view. The practical case studies in this review attest to these differences.

When partners beliefs and values were not articulated ahead of time, partners worked at cross-purposes in their attempts to achieve their shared goal, including the goal of professionalizing the teachers role in the classroom (Bartholomew & Sandholtz, 2009; Richmond, 1996; Snyder & Goldman, 1997), engaging students through active learning pedagogy (Collins, 1995; Hasslen et al., 2001; Hayes & Kelly, 2000; Penuel, Coburn, & Gallagher, 2013), and conducting action research on specific curricular issues (Gifford, 1986; Kuriloff, Reichert, Stoudt, & Ravitch, 2009; Noffke, Clark, Palmeri-Santiago, Sadler, & Shujaa, 1996).

As noted in the theoretical literature, part of the difficulty for partners to communicate their different beliefs and values up front is that partners communications draw on different discourses in the first place (Fenwick, 2004; Goldring & Sims, 2005; Martin et al., 2011). Carlone and Webb (2006) differentiated these ways of speaking as teacher discourse and academic discourse. Yuan and Mak (2016) found that these differing discourses, especially the technical and idiosyncratic language of academic discourse, created an invisible wall that made it difficult for partners to understand one another. Even when partners intentionally set out to discuss the challenges that arise from their different perspectives, partners struggle to reconcile their different work-related languages to make these discussions meaningful (Yamagata-Lynch & Smaldino, 2007). This struggle is further exacerbated when partners have different personalities and interaction styles (Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Noffke et al., 1996; Snyder & Goldman, 1997). See Table 2 for a summary of the challenges to building shared meaning

Table 2. Challenges to Building Shared Meaning: Summary

Building Shared Meaning Is Difficult When Partners. . .

Hold Different Beliefs and Values About the Meaning of Their Shared Goals

Bartholomew & Sandholtz, 2009; Collins, 1995; Edwards, 2012; Gifford, 1986; Hasslen et al., 2001; Hayes & Kelly, 2000; Kuriloff et al., 2009; Noffke et al., 1996; Penuel et al., 2013; Richmond, 1996; Snyder & Goldman, 1997

Use Different Discourses Without Translating or Bridging Them

Carlone & Webb, 2006; Fenwick, 2004; Goldring & Sims, 2005; Martin et al., 2011; Yamagata-Lynch & Smaldino, 2007; Yuan & Mak, 2016

Use Different Interaction Styles When Talking About Differences

Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Noffke et al., 1996; Snyder & Goldman, 1997


Building trusting relationships is particularly difficult when partners hold negative perceptions of one another before the collaboration even begins. This includes the perception from teachers that the work of university faculty is irrelevant to the daily realities of their classroom, and the perception that university faculty are mostly interested in partnerships to further their own careers or funding opportunities. (Lewison & Holliday, 1997; Trubowitz & Longo, 1997). Historically, this perception has led teachers to be skeptical of working in collaboration with university researchers (Shkedi, 1998). This skepticism is exacerbated by the historically asymmetrical status hierarchy that privileges researchers as producers of knowledge, and teachers as mere users of knowledge (Laine, Schultz, & Smith, 1994; Peel, Peel, & Baker, 2002). This privilege tends to be exercised in a way that grants university faculty and school administrators more control of the collaboration than teachers (Bryk & Rollow, 1996), which can lead to teachers feeling voiceless and powerless in the partnership.

According to educational theorist Paulo Freire (1970), relationships in which one group feels exploited by the other can grow in trust when partners engage in true genuine dialogue built on qualities such as humility, faith, and hope, and that ultimately gives voice and power to all parties involved. Voice and power can take many forms in a collaboration, including feeling legitimized by the collaboration, feeling joint ownership of the collaboration, and having an openness to being transformed by the collaboration.  

The educational insideroutsider partnership studies reviewed here reveal that partners regularly struggled to overcome negative preconceptions and to share voice and power in the collaboration. Barnett, Anderson, Houle, Higginbotham, and Gatling (2010), for example, interviewed teachers who had participated in a long-term partnership with one of many universities. They found that of the 16 teacher partners interviewed, 14 began their partnerships suspicious that the university professors wanted to fix them or use them to secure grants and funding. Fears and suspicions of being judged, being fixed, and being exploited were prevalent in many partnerships (Firestone & Fisler, 2002; Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Heckman, 1988; Gifford, 1986; Goldring & Sims, 2005; Grossman et al., 2001; Johnston & Kerper, 1996; King, 1997; Lancy, 1997; Martin et al., 2011; Noffke et al., 1996; Osajima, 1989; Singh, Märtsin, & Glasswell, 2015; Snyder, 1994; Snyder & Goldman, 1997; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996).

Having initial fears and reservations, however, does not mean that the collaboration will fail to work or become dysfunctional. Indeed, Barnett and colleagues (2010) interviews with teachers found that they were able to process these initial suspicions and hesitations as their research partners demonstrated openness, honesty, and commitment to the success of their students. Further, Edwards (2012) found that as partners developed common knowledge around their differing perspectives (in terms of what about the work of the partnership mattered most to them), they were able to develop capacities for relational expertise and relational agency. What these initial preconceptions do mean, however, is that building trusting relationships is crucial work for partners. This work, however, faces a number of challenges when partners fail to share voice and power.

First, and as previously mentioned, building trust is difficult if partners maintain a status hierarchy. Status hierarchies can take a number of forms in insideroutsider partnerships, including situations in which researchers position teachers as in need of their expertise (Barnett et al., 2010; Chan, 2015, 2016; Gifford, 1986; Hattrup & Bickel, 1993; Hayes & Kelly, 2000; P. Miller, 2006; Teitel, 1998); teachers position researchers or teacher candidates as servile assistants (Johnston & Kerper, 1996); or school administrators position collaborators as working under them (Martin et al., 2011). Additionally, the partnership itself can generate a new status hierarchy within schools and school districts; teachers and schools may question why they were not selected to be involved and display resentment and hostility toward those who were, which ultimately furthers an environment of distrust (Firestone & Fisler, 2002; King, 1997; Snyder, 1994; Snyder & Goldman, 1997).

Yet, simply ignoring the privileges that ones status brings while claiming that everyone is equal in principle is not enough to build open relationships. This approach to status fails to build trust because partners do not share equal privileges based on their different statuses, and this asymmetry that ascribes higher status to universities over K12 schools can be readily sensed by partners (Brookhart & Loadman, 1990). For example, one researcher collaborator (Moje, 2000) noted how she had the freedom to visit the classroom, have conversations with a few children, and then leave again, a privilege her teacher collaborator leading that classroom did not have. Furthermore, not talking about this felt asymmetry in privilege can leave partners feeling uncomfortably silenced (Ulichny & Schoener, 1996). What partners can do, however, is recognize their power differential and then use their power to legitimize, respect, and draw on each others unique experiences and expertise (Herrenkohl, Kawasaki, & Dewater, 2010). This move does not make power relations disappear, but it can mitigate the ways in which power otherwise silences partners.

Indeed, a failure to legitimize partners differing stances disrupts the trust-building process by leaving partners feeling powerless and voiceless (Dallmer, 2004; Edwards, 2012; Engle, 2010; Evans, 1999; Hattrup & Bickel, 1993; Johnston & Kerper, 1996; Lau & Stille, 2014; Richmond, 1996; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996). Further, partners can be rendered powerless and voiceless if shared ownership is not felt, and partners feel coerced to participate in a collaboration that is imposed on them (Bickel & Hattrup, 1995; Campano, Honeyford, Sánchez, & Vander Zanden 2010; Chan, 2016; Chan & Clarke, 2014; Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Gifford, 1986; Grossman, 1994; Lau & Stille, 2014; Martin et al., 2011; Osajima, 1989; Paugh, 2004; Snyder & Goldman, 1997; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996; Vozzo & Bober, 2001; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013; Yuan & Mak, 2016). Last, partners can feel powerless and voiceless if their fellow collaborators are not willing to interrogate their own positionality and to learn from and alongside them (Noffke et al., 1996; Snyder, 1994). See Table 3 for a summary of the challenges to building trusting relations.

Table 3. Challenges to Building Trusting Relationships: Summary

Building Trusting Relationships Is Difficult When Partners. . .

Hold Negative Preconceptions About the Relationship (i.e., that they are being judged, fixed, exploited)

Barnett et al., 2010; Firestone & Fisler, 2002; Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Heckman, 1988; Gifford, 1986; Goldring & Sims, 2005; Grossman et al., 2001; Johnston & Kerper, 1996; King, 1997; Lancy, 1997; Martin et al., 2011; Noffke et al., 1996; Osajima, 1989; Singh et al., 2015; Snyder, 1994; Snyder & Goldman, 1997; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996

Maintain Status Hierarchies

Barnett et al., 2010; Chan, 2015, 2016; Gifford, 1986; Hattrup & Bickel, 1993; Hayes & Kelly, 2000; Johnston & Kerper, 1996; Martin et al., 2011; P. Miller, 2006; Teitel, 1998

Are Resented by Those Who Were Not Chosen to Be Partners

Firestone & Fisler, 2002; King, 1997; Snyder, 1994; Snyder & Goldman, 1997

Ignore Status Hierarchies

Moje, 2000; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996

Do Not Legitimize Differences (i.e., experiences, skills, perspectives, etc.)

Dallmer, 2004; Edwards, 2012; Engle, 2010; Evans, 1999; Hattrup & Bickel, 1993; Johnston & Kerper, 1996; Lau & Stille, 2014; Richmond, 1996; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996

Feel Coerced to Collaborate Rather Than Feeling a Sense of Joint Ownership

Bickel & Hattrup, 1995; Campano et al., 2010; Chan, 2016; Chan & Clarke, 2014; Freedman & Salmon, 2001; Hasslen et al., 2001; Gifford, 1986; Grossman, 1994; Lau & Stille, 2014; Martin et al., 2011; Osajima, 1989; Paugh, 2004; Snyder & Goldman, 1997; Ulichny & Schoener, 1996; Vozzo & Bober, 2001; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013; Yuan & Mak, 2016

Are Not Willing to Question Their Positions and Learn From Each Other

Noffke et al., 1996; Snyder, 1994

Given the theoretical literature on the difficulties of building organizational structures, shared meaning, and trusting relationships for schools and universities, it was not surprising to see that challenges and tensions readily emerged across these fronts for the various studies reviewed here. It is worth noting that the challenges encountered across these 56 articles are not intended to be an exhaustive sampling of all possible challenges. Kornfeld and Leydens (2001) position discussed earlier suggests that the complexities of these partnerships are infinite, and thus we should expect the potential pitfalls to surpass this list.

Readers and aspiring partners are encouraged to grow this list by putting it in dialogue with voices from other fields that analyze the challenges to partnership collaboration. This includes specific research areas that use partnerships to develop and implement integrated services such as public health, mental health, and even criminology (Coburn & Penuel, 2016). It also includes more generalized fields, such as implementation science and development studies. Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) advocated for this multivoiced approach in his book, Making Social Science Matter. The goal of this approach is to deepen inquiry by bringing more perspectives and narratives to it, not to foreclose the inquiry by claiming a final set of identified challenges.


Although this literature review focuses on the challenges of collaboration, it is important to understand that collaborations are just one of many aspects of the work that insideroutsider partnerships perform together. Many insideroutsider partnerships in education also aim to evaluate, scale, and sustain their work. Evaluating, scaling, and sustaining the work of a collaboration, of course, poses its own tensions and challenges as well. Traditional models of cause-and-effect used in controlled experiments do not align with insideroutsider partnerships, which conduct multiple reforms at once within a living school ecosystem (Knapp, 1995; Walsh & Park-Taylor, 2003). In their review of community schools, Jeannie Oakes, Anna Maier, and Julia Daniel (2017) argued that evaluation models must include assessments not just of progress toward hope-for outcomes, but also about implementation and exposure to services. Understanding how multiple reforms unfold and interact within the larger school ecosystem necessitates the use of nontraditional evaluation models, several of which are presented next.

Alternative evaluation models have been proposed to capture the sprawling efforts of complex social programs such as the reform efforts of insideroutsider partnerships. For example, Knapp (1995) proposed a model of evaluation that is strongly conceptualized (including the partners logic model and partners assumptions about who is being served), thickly descriptive, comparative (to examine the varying conditions that support or impede collaborative work, to explore variations on a theme), constructively skeptical, positioned from the bottom up, and collaborative (when appropriate).

Likewise, traditional models of scaling and sustaining collaborative work (by duplicating a reform from one site to others) do not align well with insideroutsider partnerships that emerge out of local relevance to specific sites in specific circumstances (Coburn, Penuel, & Geil, 2013). New models of distribution in which reform activities take place across multiple levels of the education system supported by intermediary organizations (Honig & Ikemoto, 2008; Scherrer, Israel, & Resnick, 2013) and are scaled down and adapted by local sites (Kirshner & Polman, 2013) are finding success. Other researchers (Lewis, Perry, & Murata, 2006) advocate for the wisdom of a horizontal approach to scaling, through which instructional innovations are implemented and researched in their local context by both local and outside experts who collaboratively discuss the observed lesson. The lessons that are persuasive to the observing experts may travel widely, but under this model, they will continue to be researched and innovated on by visiting experts in the lessons new local context. This cycle of research results in a continual accumulation of instructional strategies that are public, shareable, and verifiable, finding their legitimacy in the local proof of the research process (Gutiérrez & Penuel, 2014).

One compelling takeaway from these considerations is that the traditional models used to evaluate, scale, and sustain educational reform may actually need to be updated to more productively merge research and practice. In other words, what would models for evaluating, scaling, and sustaining educational reforms look like if they actively bridged research and practice together? In many ways, the site articles presented in this special issue are uniquely positioned to experiment with new models of evaluation, scaling, and sustainability.

The introduction discusses the legislation that set the program in motion. It allowed each site to develop a locally tailored approach to its partnership and reform efforts. In other words, sites were not positioned to simply duplicate reforms from elsewhere or with one another. Additionally, each site was tasked with writing annual reports of the progress of various aspects of the partnership, including issues of scale and sustainability. The practice of partners self-evaluating their work once a year over the course of five years supported partners to go beyond asking How can we sustain this work? to examining which parts of their partnership model and reform implementations are serving the community well, and thus should be sustained, and which parts are not, and thus should be reconfigured or let go. Rather than being an afterthought, sustainability became a constant practice of priority evaluating and course correction.

Annual meetings brought each site (schools and universities) together in person once a year to share each sites model and partnership progress side-by-side. These meetings became more collaborative and dialogical across sites over time, ultimately resulting in a formalized cross-site research effort that met more regularly to collectively make sense of the work together. The process of this sense-making entailed conference call meetings in which researchers discussed each others work (both their partnership practices and their research) as they drafted a series of articles (featured in this issue) that illuminate the different dimensions of this work.

Ultimately, this collective effort produced an analysis of the work that goes beyond a traditional program evaluation focused solely on outcomes, to look instead at the processes and strategies that partners drew on to bridge their own differences and to rework the researchpractice gap in meaningful ways at their school site. These analyses are well aligned to Knapps (1995) alternative evaluation considerations: They provide logic and program models that guide the work of the partnership, thick descriptions of the partnership in action, a side-by-side comparison of the varying conditions that impact the work of the partnership, a constructive account of the work that is also open and up front about its complexities and challenges, and a view from the bottom up that looks to the various ways in which the community is served and the evaluation process itself is a collaborative effort between partners. These features of evaluation are crucial for readers to gain insights into the actual processes and strategies that partners used to work together to make change at each site.   

Each site also worked to place its site article in direct dialogue with this literature review. On one side of the dialogue, the literature review acts as a collective introduction to the literature for the site articles that follow. By positioning this literature review up front, sites have more space to analyze their phenomenon of interest (and provide literature reviews relevant to their specific topic), while the reader is spared from having to read three equivalent literature reviews about the well-documented challenges of partnership collaboration. On the other side of the dialogue, each site has crafted a statement to orient the reader to how its phenomenon of interest intersects with the issues raised in this literature review.  Brief introductions to each site article are included next.  


Navigating Fragility and Building Resilience (Herrenkohl et al., 2019, this issue) provides an account of a partnership between a diverse urban school and a large research university. The central focus of the work was to create a full-service community school that could address the needs of students and their families while providing a site for preservice teachers to learn about broad models in order to better serve poverty-impacted students. This article traces the major theme of the partnershipnavigating fragility and building resilienceby providing an account of the assets, challenges, and processes that impacted the collaboration in several of the domains of the full-service community school model, including holistic health and wellness, academic excellence, and family engagement. Specifically, the fragility of this work was made salient through widespread and continual turnover at the school site. In turn, the resilience of this work was felt in the innovative strategies created to bridge research and practice in ways that served students health needs, teachers collaboration practices, and families growing leadership roles.


The evidence presented in the Creating Synergies for Change article (Carney et al., 2019, this issue) suggests that this schooluniversity partnership made significant progress in achieving the outcomes identified in its logic model action plan. The intersection of the partnerships efforts to engage and support families, coupled with more actively engaging instructional practices and ongoing professional learning community inquiry, seems to have created a synergy for change in Riverview Elementary, a majority Latinx school with a large number of English learners and high-poverty measures. Areas of challenge remain, but the projects emphasis on organic evolution, building trusting relationships, and leveling status hierarchies resulted in a partnership that seems to have avoided or overcome many of the challenges typical of schooluniversity collaborations. The project also benefitted from fortuitous circumstances: All the key members of the partnership, including the school principal, remained in place for five years, and university team members, who had extensive experience in schools, were in the later stages of their careers, which enabled them to spend large amounts of time in the school without worrying unduly about competing demands in their home institutions. Other factors related to the literature are also discussed in the article.


Discovering Together (Traynor & Tully, 2019, this issue) describes the iterative change process that unfolded between a low-income elementary school and two university partners. The partnership began by identifying student needs and developing a conceptual model to respond to these needs. The conceptual model integrates relational trust, academic press, and social support. These elements guided the partners work as they implemented a number of schoolwide systems to (a) support the behavioral, achievement, attendance, and social-emotional needs of students, (b) transform how mentors and teacher candidates learn together, and (c) create collaborative learning teams to monitor and act on the schoolwide systems of support. This work was made complicated from the outset, however, by a lack of staff buy-in to the partnership. As the project progressed, additional challenges emergedincluding staff overload and staff turnoverwhich made it difficult to collaborate and coordinate between partners. Despite these challenges, the partnership has progressed in the area of relational trust and in alignment of resources in support of students and preservice teachers, particularly in the field-situated methods courses and in the delivery of the after-school programming.

Taken together, these studies offer insight into the varied nature of how educational improvement efforts can be studied and made sense of on the ground, and how these reforms in turn impact numerous outcomes. These studies attend to Oakes and colleagues (2017) emphasis on studying the implementation and interplay of multiple reforms in situ to inform research on community schools. Furthermore, these studies align with Coburn and Penuels (2016) call for targeted studies of specific strategies that partnerships use to address the prevalent challenges of this type of work.


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First, an intellectual social network analysis was conducted. The topic and scope of the proposed literature review were shared with relevant scholars in the field. These scholars, in turn, identified a number of researchers whose work directly addresses the topic and scope of the literature review: the challenging demands of insideroutsider partnerships. Studies from these authors that met the criteria were included. Tracing citations forward (scholars citing these studies) and backward (scholars cited in these studies) in this work generated additional studies that met the criteria.

Next, all published volumes (i.e., special issues and edited scholarly books) that included at least one chapter meeting the inclusion criteria were reviewed. A number of additional relevant studies were identified this way.

Finally, a database search was conducted to locate studies published in the last 30 years (between 1986, when the publication of the Holmes Report initiated the call for educational partnerships, and 2016, when this literature review was conducted). Peer-reviewed articles were searched for across ERIC (EBSCOhost), Education Source, and PsycINFO using the following search terms and syntax: (college-school cooperation or professional development school* or school-university partnership* or "school-university collaboration*" or "research-practice partnership*" or "collective impact project*" or "full service community school*) AND (problem* or challeng* or tension* or dilemma* or barrier* or complex* or difficult*) AND (navigat* or negotia* or maneuver* or overcom* or resolv*).

The following inclusion and exclusion criteria were developed throughout the search process and then applied to capture the most relevant research investigating the challenges of insideroutsider partnerships in the field of education. First, studies were included only if they involved a university partnership with a school or school district that fit the scope, focus, and structure of an insideroutsider partnership. This allows for the inclusion of research on partnerships that fit the character of insideroutsider partnerships even if they go by a different name (i.e., schooluniversity collaborations, participatory action research, researchpractice partnerships, interprofessional partnerships).

Second, studies were included only if they focused on the demanding challenges and dilemmas that arise from the nature of the partnership itself. If the studys primary phenomenon of interest was not the partnership (for example, a study that foregrounds student outcomes and backgrounds the partnership itself), that study was not included. Finally, studies were included only if they analyzed specific cases of insideroutsider partnerships not insideroutsider partnerships in general or in theory. This means that empirical studies, first-person accounts, and conceptual pieces (e.g., using activity theory to explain insideroutsider partnerships) were included so long as they provided details of the specific cases they analyzed.

When applied to the intellectual social network analysis, the inclusion and exclusion criteria generated 34 articles and chapters from published volumes. An additional 22 were identified from the database searches.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 12, 2019, p. 1-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22918, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:49:50 PM

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About the Author
  • David Phelps
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    DAVID PHELPS is a doctoral candidate in the learning sciences at the University of Washington. His research, design-work, and teaching focus on the authentic inquiry practices of both young children and interorganizational partnerships.
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