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Driving education policy through research and collaboration

UNC School of Education faculty and N.C. Department of Public Instruction launch network focused on building district and charter leaders’ research capacity and using evidence to support students and teachers in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Public schools continue to face challenges stemming from the pandemic. This August, many schools opened with teacher vacancies and students performing below grade level. To support school districts’ efforts to make policy decisions that will benefit students and aid in learning recovery, faculty members in the UNC School of Education are leading an effort to connect groups in the education sector that can sometimes seem siloed: K-12 and higher education leaders and educators, university-based faculty and researchers, and state policymakers.

The North Carolina Practitioner Network is a new partnership between the UNC School of Education and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) with funding from NCDPI and the North Carolina Collaboratory. The network will bring together up to 16 of North Carolina’s public school districts and charter organizations with university faculty members from across the state to work together on evidence-based solutions to the most pressing problems districts and schools face right now. 

Lauren Sartain, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School, co-leads the network’s efforts and is not new to this unique model that brings practitioners, researchers, and policymakers together to work on the same problem. Prior to joining the School of Education, she worked at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, a research-practice partnership with Chicago Public Schools that’s been in place for over 30 years and has been replicated across the country.

“Academic research traditionally relies on university faculty as the experts who decide what problems are important to investigate,” Sartain said. “This network is different because it will connect district and school folks with researchers in a way that makes them equal and committed partners with the same goal of improving education across North Carolina.”

The North Carolina Practitioner Network will feature interactive workshops, both online and in-person, to guide district and school leaders on how to identify problems of practice and research-based strategies for addressing those problems. Through these interactive sessions, district and charter school leaders will have the opportunity to delve into various research methodologies, tools, and techniques and how to apply them in K-12 settings.

“By training district leaders in research methodology and connecting them with university partners, we want to foster data-driven solutions that positively impact policy and classroom practice,” said Jeni Corn, Ph.D., director of research and evaluation at NCDPI. 

Another key feature of the network is that each participating district will be matched with faculty fellows from different universities across North Carolina who can be thought partners and provide technical support.

“We envision this developing into a statewide community where researchers and education leaders work hand-in-hand to generate learning outcomes that will benefit students and educators,” Sartain said. “By evaluating what’s working, developing policy-relevant studies, and translating findings into action, we can cultivate meaningful educational improvements.” 

Matthew Springer, Ph.D., Robena and Walter E. Hussman Jr. Distinguished Professor of Education Reform, will co-lead the network. According to Springer, the first year of the initiative will focus on designing and learning — with support from UNC Digital and Lifelong Learning to develop content for online workshop modules. In the second and third years of the initiative, a subset of the district and charter teams will receive support to implement their solution to the problem of practice they identify in year one.

Additionally, the network will engage leaders at the state, local, and institutional levels. Springer noted the promise of bringing together researchers and practitioners to build districts’ capacity to address issues through an evidence-based lens, while also ensuring researchers are focused on the most pressing problems districts face. 

“The more we can focus on evidence-based solutions to pressing practice and policy concerns, the more likely we are to improve educational opportunities for students,” Springer said. “The Practitioner Network is a unique initiative that brings together researchers and educators to identify solutions to persistent problems like teacher recruitment and retention or post-secondary pathways for students while also building district capacity to identify and evaluate evidence-based solutions into the future.”  

The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory is a key partner supporting the Practitioner Network. Established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2016, the Collaboratory addresses pressing environmental, economic, and public health issues faced by North Carolinians.  

“By engaging some of the best minds across our universities, state agencies, and school systems, we remain committed to funding more than $7 million in research that prioritizes the post-pandemic learning recovery process for students statewide and provides them – and education leaders – with the support they need to get back on track,” said Jeff Warren, Ph.D., executive director of the North Carolina Collaboratory. 

“We are committed to doing everything we can to help our students catch up and get back on track after the challenges of the pandemic.” 

The UNC School of Education and NCDPI are recruiting interested districts, charters, and higher education faculty members from across the state. If you are interested in participating, contact Carolyn Welker at by Sept. 29 to learn more.