Research and Practice Make Perfect: Collaboration on the Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance
Collaboration with practitioners is a cornerstone of REL Southwest’s work. Through its eight research alliances, REL Southwest works with school, district, and state education staff to conduct research that's relevant and actionable. Practitioners are meaningfully involved throughout the research process, from creating research questions to data collection to interpreting the results. For example, members of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance had the opportunity to design and administer a survey for principals about professional development practices.
A wide variety of stakeholders form the alliance and its leadership team, including representatives from the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), the Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), the K20 Center at the University of Oklahoma, American Indian tribes, districts, schools, and nonprofit educational organizations. These stakeholders help REL Southwest researchers learn about and understand the educational context of Oklahoma’s rural schools.
Researchers and practitioners worked together to learn about professional development practices in Oklahoma. Pictured are Pia Peltola, principal researcher for REL Southwest; Kathren Stehno, former senior coordinator for the Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality & Accountability; Haidee Williams, Oklahoma Rural Schools research alliance liaison; and Susan Pinson, executive director of professional learning for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Susan Pinson, Executive Director of Professional Learning for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, notes that Oklahoma has a unique rural population. "Half of Oklahoma’s public schools are in rural areas. Oklahoma has more American Indian tribes than any other state, and since our state doesn't have schools on reservations, those students are in public education settings—mostly in rural schools." In addition, rural education is affected by larger priority issues across the state. "Teacher recruitment and retention are big priorities, along with teacher salaries. Currently, Oklahoma ranks at the very bottom in teacher pay and may even be losing ground. We also have a high number of emergency and alternatively certified teachers; while most of them are in metro areas, we do have some in rural areas as well," says Pinson.
Haidee Williams, Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance Liaison, explains that the alliance members drove the survey content. "In forming this alliance, the big question we asked ourselves was, 'What challenges are facing rural schools?’ The alliance members started by creating a list of 26 challenges and then narrowing it down. Exploring professional development in rural schools came up very early in the discussion."
Pinson joined the alliance as the group began to focus on professional learning. "In Oklahoma, professional development is managed at the local level," says Pinson, meaning that variation between schools has a significant impact on the opportunities that educators receive.
Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance liaison, Haidee Williams, presents Susan Pinson with a plaque for her service to REL Southwest
The alliance began by reviewing existing research on professional development opportunities for rural educators. Williams explains, "We started with a literature review to see what was already known about promising practices in rural schools, but, of course, we also wanted to know what was going on in Oklahoma." There was little research on professional development specific to Oklahoma, so the alliance decided to conduct its own study.
Alliance members reviewed and selected relevant survey questions, adjusting them to fit the Oklahoma educational context. Pinson recalls the survey development process, saying, "After the refinement process, we ended up with a very long list of questions. Narrowing down the list was a group effort – a core group of alliance members participated in editing, deleting, and commenting on questions to create the final list." Collaborating on the survey development helped Pinson build relationships with stakeholders from other organizations.
Practitioner relationships within the state were essential for data collection as well. OEQA had an established reputation with Oklahoma schools because the division administers other surveys on behalf of the state. This meant that OEQA had the capacity to send out the professional development survey and collect responses. "That way, principals were receiving the survey from a known entity," says Williams, and they might be more likely to respond.
REL Southwest analyzed the survey results, and the final report is now available. After alliance members had some time to review the data, Williams and Pia Peltola, a principal researcher forREL Southwest, met with the alliance in person to discuss the implications of the results. Alliance members were able to provide context for the principals’ responses. For example, only 44% of rural principals indicated that distance was a barrier that deterred their teachers from participating in professional development, even though researchers might have expected this percentage to be higher. Drawing on their familiarity with rural contexts, alliance members noted that for rural teachers, the opportunity to visit the city for training is often an incentive, and scheduling ends up being a larger barrier than distance.
REL Southwest researchers and practitioners shared the survey and research at state and national conferences this summer and fall. Researchers and alliance members presented on the survey results at the National Forum to Advance Rural Education in October. During the presentation, alliance members described how the alliance collaborated and developed the survey, providing takeaways that other practitioners can apply.
Haidee Williams, Oklahoma Rural Schools research alliance liaison, presents on the professional development survey at the National Forum to Advance Rural Education.
OSDE is also using the professional development survey to inform its work. Pinson says that "part of OSDE's charge is providing resources to help teachers and administrators develop skills and knowledge." Pinson sees how this could align with the REL Southwest study, as OSDE considers how to address challenges and most effectively offer professional development. OSDE is also exploring professional development standards and the possibility of creating a statewide professional learning model.
Pinson found significant value in collaborating with REL Southwest. "OSDE doesn't have a data department, but we need data to inform our work. Therefore, it's really important for us to 'link arms' with an organization like REL Southwest. The REL and this research alliance serve as bridges between researchers and practitioners that make critical information understandable. The REL's grounded professional research practices give the OSDE confidence that the data we receive will be accurate, clean and professionally presented."