Research, Practice, and School Improvement: Lead the Change Interview with Elizabeth A. Zumpe

In this month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview Elizabeth A. Lumpe shares reflections on her experiences as researcher, teacher, and a participant in a series of research-practice partnerships in Massachusetts and California. Zumpe is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Education at University of Massachusetts Lowell. Starting in January, she will be an Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website,

Lead the Change (LtC): The 2023 AERA theme is “Interrogating Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth” and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Elizabeth Zumpe (EZ): We live in a time in which educational problems are both urgent and complex. Expectations for public schools have risen substantially over the past 40 years (Mehta, 2013). During the same time, income inequality has also risen (Sommeiller & Price, 2018), and our school system has become resegregated (Government Accountability Office, 2022). Amid a global pandemic and a resurgent racial reckoning, a paradigm of standards-based accountability (Mehta, 2013) continues to dominate education policies. Educators serving high-poverty communities of color find themselves in under-resourced schools labeled as “chronically low-performing” and subject to sanctions. Meanwhile, teacher shortages are growing as many educators leave the profession (Marshall et al., 2022).

I find myself asking, what is the role of education scholars in the midst of this reality? Clearly, research is needed for describing and diagnosing these conditions. But is that enough, given the complexity and gravity of the problems? Perhaps because of my prior career as a public school teacher for over a decade, I think that bridging the research-practice gap is imperative. This bridging requires more than dissemination and brokerage. The work of research needs to be useful to help solve the problems in our education system. We cannot learn how to solve these problems at a distance from the daily realities of preK-12 schools. To understand how improvement unfolds, more scholars will need to get involved in the work of improving.

This interest drove my involvement in a multi-year research-practice partnership (RPP) with a Californian school district. The RPP included a research team from the University of California Berkeley and a team of district leaders. This district serves a high-poverty community of color, has been flagged for low performance for years, and has a reputation of micro-political conflict. We decided up front that our partnership needed to do more than document and describe the challenges. We wanted to learn side by side with educators how to strive towards improvement amid conditions of complexity and adversity. This required researchers to become aware of and curious about the practical dilemmas that educators face. We became embedded in day-to-day decision making, conducting action research as we took part in the improvement work. Researchers and practitioners—district leaders, school leaders, and teachers—met regularly to co-design improvement plans and professional learning and to study the uptake and limitations.

This is not how most academic research traditionally occurs. This approach means putting practitioners’ needs at the center of inquiry. It also means wading into the complexity of urban school districts and recognizing that scholars do not necessarily have all of the expertise. An RPP of this type, therefore, requires new methods and new role identities.

Building on these ideas, in the past year, I helped launch a new RPP between the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Lowell Public Schools. With co-PI Jack Schneider, this RPP involves researchers and practitioners co-designing a school quality data dashboard and a professional learning series for applying methods of continuous improvement. Research has not yet revealed much about how to build capacity for evidence-informed collective learning in high-poverty school districts that face resource scarcity, turnover, and pressures from test-driven accountability policies (Zumpe, 2022a). We hope that our work in Lowell will begin to shed light on this.

“An RPP means wading into the complexity of urban school districts and recognizing that scholars do not necessarily have all of the expertise.”

LtC: In your work, you use improvement science and design-based school improvement models to define and solve problems in school systems. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience? 

EZ: My research and collaborations with educators have taught me the importance of building capacity for organizational problem solving. I first learned about this while involved in research and development within an innovative EdD program at the University of California, Berkeley, the Leadership for Educational Equity Program (LEEP). In the book, Design-Based School Improvement: A Practical Guide for Education Leaders, by Rick Mintrop, we describe a pedagogy developed in LEEP for education leaders to use design-based problem solving to address an equity-relevant problem of practice in their own organizations (Mintrop, 2017). Initial phases of this approach involve developing a theory of action. This entails first defining, framing, and diagnosing the problem. Then, leaders set goals and identify change drivers—or powerful social psychological forces—that can enable self-directed learning. Throughout this work, education leaders conduct local needs assessments to learn with and from people in the organization and co-design the change process. These steps are similar to principles of improvement science promoted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Bryk et al., 2015).

However, through action research within LEEP, we also discovered that it is not straightforward for education leaders to learn how to become organizational problem solvers. Tracing how one cohort of leaders developed theories of action over two years, we found that leaders’ existing ways of thinking about improvement interfered. As described in an article published in the American Journal of Education, we found a countervailing mindset that persisted over time (Mintrop & Zumpe, 2019). Rather than seeking to understand and solve a particular problem, leaders tended to start out with a preferred solution they wanted to implement and to frame their problem of practice as “the absence of my solution.” This implementation-oriented framing strongly constrained how leaders used evidence, engaged with local participants, and thought about change.

“Education leaders, scholars, and policymakers should do more to involve the people in schools in deciding which problems to solve and to build their capacity to learn how to solve them.”

For education leaders, focusing on implementation seems a rational approach to improvement. The typical work conditions they face in districts and schools do not create an environment that favors problem solving. Education leaders are often handed policies or “best practices” to implement. But many also face frustrations about reform churn (Hess, 2011) and so-called “resistance” to change (Knight, 2009). This suggests reasons to question a reform approach that orients leaders towards deciding “for” people what the problem and solution should be. Education leaders, scholars, and policymakers should do more to involve the people in schools—students, teachers, staff, parents, and community members—in deciding which problems to solve and to build their capacity to learn how to solve them.

These findings suggest that educators’ mindsets about improvement can be shaped heavily by their institutional and organizational environments. My research and experience pose an important challenge to the field of educational change: If we want educators to undertake methods of continuous improvement like improvement science or design-based school improvement, then we have to puzzle over how they can come to develop conducive mindsets for this work while embedded in a typical district environment.

LtC: In your recent work, you investigate how district context (e.g., resources, past accountability experiences, turnover, and district norms) matters in establishing collective learning environments for school improvement. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners better support schools in designing and implementing system-wide change?

EZ: As part of our Californian RPP, I spent a year partnering with one school facing especially challenging conditions (e.g., negative reputation, staff shortages and turnover, serving many students who experience recurrent trauma and marginalization), like what many schools are facing today (Zumpe, 2022b). This was a school that eagerly joined the partnership and wanted to improve. But they faced challenges at the core of their work: daily challenges to reach their students, and as one teacher described it, struggles with “the basics of collaboration.” The school served a very high-poverty community of nearly all students of color. Educators talked of daily challenges to engage students who seemed “defeated.” The faculty describing having a negative reputation of what several members referred to as being seen as a “dumping ground” and having been labeled as “low performing” for years. Unfilled teaching positions and a teacher shortage required the principal and teachers to expend substantial daily effort to cover classes and keep their school running.

I endeavored to learn with educators how the pursuit of improvement becomes possible in this kind of environment. Through participant observation and action research with several work teams, including one that I launched and led, I observed how the chronic experience of adversity meant that their work teams had not been able to develop into trusting, “effective” groups able to solve the complex and vexing problems they faced. Rather, amid a history of turnover, overload, and being told that they were a “dumping ground” school, they were struggling to develop a more foundational capability—what I am calling, collective agency, or a group capability to face up to and work together to address any problems (Zumpe, 2020).

This experience left me wondering how educational policies and school improvement models might attend more to the humanity of educators undertaking complex work amid trying circumstances. High-stakes, standards-based accountability reforms tend to treat enduring problems to educate students amid adversity as “excuses” to be surmounted by pressure, ambitious goals, and threats of consequences. However, in the groups that I partnered with, each new low accountability rating tended to have a devastating impact on collective agency, prompting educators to abandon initiatives underway, turn on each other, and feel hopeless when they felt their efforts to improve were “never enough.”

I think policymakers, scholars, and education leaders need to think more about how to nurture collective agency as a key resource for school improvement. This includes identifying concepts and metrics that allow incremental developmental efforts to become visible and recognized. In challenged schools, reforms might be designed to orient educators towards a focus on simpler problems at the outset, to establish basics of teaming and serve as a foundation for building problem solving capacity over time. Another possibility may be to focus less heavily on solving “problems” and leverage insights from strengths-based organizational development models (Daly & Chrispeels, 2005), such as appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005).

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

EZ: Currently, school improvement research is quite limited when it comes to understanding organizational development in challenged school contexts. A dominant logic of inquiry developed through the effective schools movement has led to a body of case studies of “improved” or “effective” schools that have accomplished great feats while serving high-poverty communities of color, as well as many other cases of schools deemed “ineffective.” We need to learn much more about what might lay in between. How do schools develop? What kinds of dilemmas and struggles are entailed? My research builds on a handful of studies that have pointed to the importance of recognizing how chronic and cumulative adversity functions as a context for improvement (Mintrop & Charles, 2017; Ordenes, 2018; Payne, 2008). As described above, if we take adversity seriously as a context, we will need to build a better understanding of how to cultivate and sustain schools’ collective agency in the midst of an environment that can shut down agency.

“Policymakers, scholars, and education leaders need to think more about how to nurture collective agency as a key resource for school improvement.”

Such an approach—school development “in the next level of work” (City et al., 2009)—would constitute an important departure from how we have historically conceptualized, measured, and practiced school improvement. Learning how to recognize and sustain emergent agency requires attending to human needs, building trust, and sharing in the risks and joys of solving problems in schools. Design, development, and research in this area would necessitate proximity and action-oriented partnerships.

This has important implications for the kinds of methods and dispositions needed for those who seek to support educational transformation. To date, a major function of educational research has been to identify or design “best practices,” and to study the extent to which educators exhibit or implement these. Establishing standards of practice like this can be helpful. However, all too often, such standards are developed at a distance from educators, and educators have not had a say in constructing them. This sets up a situation in which research can end up describing a desired state that educators do not have the resources to attain. Such research can alienate educators rather than serve them.

That is not to say that educators always necessarily “know best.” I think we need to strive towards more mutuality in how scholars and practitioners share in the burdens and rewards of research and development in education. This has profound implications. Putting research into the service of solving real world problems will call for new relationships and models of knowledge production that allow us to pool our intellectual resources to design learning standards, activities, and materials that are engaging and responsive to educational needs. With this approach, I believe we can also produce knowledge that the field of educational change desperately needs about how development unfolds in complex and challenging environments.

“If the practice of scholarship could not enable the pursuit of change, I was not sure what it was worth.”

To get there, we will all need to learn how to understand each other across institutional contexts and status and power differentials. How might we come to understand each other’s limitations and differences as tied to differing institutional pressures and learning needs, and not as moral failings?

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

EZ: When I left K-12 teaching practice to begin doctoral study, my initial excitement for scholarly learning waned quickly when I experienced the gut punch of the research-practice gap. Too much of the scholarly research seemed disconnected from the everyday problems and experiences facing educators. Too little of it seemed practically relevant for the pursuit of improvement. It also seemed like many established and successful scholars had too little concern for whether their research could or did influence practice. I encountered a pervasive distaste in the academy for action-oriented research. Walking in the library stacks, I often pictured the kids languishing right at that moment in an under-resourced school and asking, who is all this knowledge for? If the practice of scholarship could not enable the pursuit of change, I was not sure what it was worth.

Fast forward to today, and that situation has substantially changed. A vast new research territory has opened. I am excited about the emergence of a thriving scholarly community working to build a new paradigm of educational research that is improvement-focused (Peurach et al., 2022). I find new hope in scholars who are building new theories and methods for practice-focused knowledge production in the service of solving educational problems (Bryk et al., 2015). This includes other scholars like me who are involved in RPPs, developing new approaches to research that are more collaborative with educators, and working on the puzzle of how to make research more responsive to practice (Cobb et al., 2018; Cohen-Vogel et al., 2016). I am also excited about research emerging from those who study educators’ experiences with using continuous improvement methods (Yurkofsky, 2022) and who study the dynamics of RPPs to help us figure out how to help them emerge, grow, sustain, and succeed (Farrell et al., 2019; Henrick et al., 2017).

I am also excited about the innovations underway in the field of leadership development. Over the past 15 years, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) has led the transformation of education doctorate programs towards dissertations-in-practice (Perry et al., 2020). Now with over 130 university consortium members (, members of CPED commit to a set of principles that emphasize improvement-focused research and social justice. This innovation offers strong promise for producing new forms of knowledge that can guide scholars, policymakers, and educators towards new practices and new structures for a more just educational system.

These new developments hold promise for stronger connections between research and practice—but that is not a foregone conclusion. The pull of old habits and institutional forces could render “new” approaches new in name only. Funders might shy away. Academics and educators might find that the efforts of connecting research and practice outweigh the rewards. But every week, as I read new research and participate in expanding communities of practice in this new space, I become more optimistic that a new paradigm of knowledge production is emerging.


Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press.

City, E. A., Elmore, R. F., Fiarman, S. E., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Harvard Education Press.

Cobb, P., Jackson, K., Henrick, E., & Smith, T. M. (2018). Systems for instructional improvement: Creating coherence from the classroom to the district office. Harvard Education Press.

Cohen-Vogel, L., Cannata, M., Rutledge, S. A., & Socol, A. R. (2016). A model of continuous improvement in high schools: A process for research, innovation design, implementation, and scale. Teachers College Record, 118(13), 1-26.

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Daly, A. J., & Chrispeels, J. (2005). From problem to possibility: Leadership for implementing and deepening the processes of effective schools. Journal for Effective Schools4(1), 7-25.

Farrell, C. C., Harrison, C., & Coburn, C. E. (2019). “What the hell is this, and who the hell are you?” Role and identity negotiation in research-practice partnerships. AERA Open, 5(2),

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Henrick, E. C., Cobb, P., Penuel, W. R., Jackson, K., & Clark, T. (2017). Assessing research practice partnerships: Five dimensions of effectiveness. William T. Grant Foundation.

Hess, F. M. (2011). Spinning wheels: The politics of urban school reform. Brookings Institution Press.

Knight, J. (2009). What can we do about teacher resistance?. Phi Delta Kappan90(7), 508 – 513.

Marshall, D. T., Pressley, T., Neugebauer, N. M., & Shannon, D. M. (2022). Why teachers are leaving and what we can do about it. Phi Delta Kappan, 104(1).

Mehta, J. (2013). How paradigms create politics: The transformation of American educational policy, 1980–2001. American Educational Research Journal, 50(2), 285-324

Mintrop, R. (2020). Design-based school improvement: A practical guide for education leaders. Harvard Education Press.

Mintrop, R., & Charles, J. (2017). The formation of teacher work teams under adverse conditions: Towards a more realistic scenario for schools in distress. Journal of Educational Change, 18(1), 49-75.

Mintrop, R., & Zumpe, E. (2019). Solving real-life problems of practice and education leaders’ school improvement mind-set. American Journal of Education, 125(3), 295-344.

Ordenes, M. A. G. (2018). Commitment as struggle: Teachers serving students in the face of socioeconomic adversity [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California.

Payne, C. M. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Perry, J. A., Zambo, D., & Crow, R. (2020). The improvement science dissertation in practice: A guide for faculty, committee members, and their students. Myers Education Press.

Peurach, D. J., Russell, J. L., Cohen-Vogel, L., & Penuel, W. R. (2022). The foundational handbook on improvement research in education. Rowman & Littlefield.

Sommeiller, E., and Price, M. (2018). The new gilded age: Income inequality in the U.S. by state, metropolitan area, and county. Economic Policy Institute.

The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (2021). A knowledge forum on the EdD.

Yurkofsky, M. (2022). From compliance to improvement: How school leaders make sense of institutional and technical demands when implementing a continuous improvement process. Educational Administration Quarterly, 58(2), 300-346.

Zumpe, E. A. (2020). School improvement in the next level of work: Struggling for collective agency in a school facing adversity [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.

Zumpe, E. (2022a). Evidence-based practices in U.S. schools: The California context. In C. Brown & J. R. Malin (Eds.), The handbook of evidence-informed practice in education: Learning from international contexts. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Zumpe, E. (2022b, August 2). Five of the biggest threats today’s K-12 students and educators face don’t involve guns. The Conversation.

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