Personal Reflections on a Career Spent Creating and Sustaining Researcher-Practitioner Collaborations
V. Scott H. Solberg
This chapter appears in J. P. Sampson, E. Bullock-Yowell, V. C. Dozier, D. S. Osborn, & J. G. Lenz (Eds.), Integrating theory, research, and practice in vocational psychology: Current status and future directions (pp. 108-129). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University. doi:10.17125/svp2016.ch11
The chapter is based on a paper presented at the conference of the Society of Vocational Psychology, May 16–17, 2016, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL. A video presentation of a preliminary version of this paper may be retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5B01OKtua8&list=PLCsXiACK-LKrVRKb1z_Nw3METZg-SoRFA&index=16
Appreciation is expressed to James Sampson, Emily Bullock-Yowell, and Janet Lenz for their helpful feedback on previous drafts.
Correspondence should be addressed to V. Scott H. Solberg, Department of Counseling and Human Development, Boston University, 2 Silber Way, Boston, MA 02215. E-mail: email@example.com.
Keywords: researcher-practitioner collaborations, collaborative process, counseling psychology, vocational psychology, career development programs and services, recommendations for practice, schools, students
This chapter offers a personal reflection on the opportunities and challenges associated with engaging in researcher-practitioner collaborations. This type of research falls under the general category of community-based participatory research (CBPR) that was introduced in relation to translating medical research into effective practice (Israel, Eng, Schultz, & Parker, 2005). CPBR methods rely on developing “researcher-practitioner collaborations” in conducting discovery research, as well as designing, implementing, and evaluating innovative career development programs and services. In this context, practitioners refer broadly to school and career counselors, educators, community-based organizations as well as local, state and federal program officers. The chapter explores a number of topics that include the following: (a) challenges and pitfalls that one may encounter when engaging in researcher-practitioner collaborations, (b) ways in which counseling psychology provides the foundational skills for participating in collaborative efforts, (c) my personal motivation for engaging in collaborative efforts, (d) a chronicle of my collaboration efforts, (e) ideas on how to establish a researcher-practitioner collaboration, (f) how to launch a collaborative project, (g) how to expand ones influence and sustain collaborative efforts, and (h) the existential crisis one may experience when conducting researcher-collaborations in low income communities.
Challenges Associated with Engaging in Researcher-Practitioner Collaborations
Before describing strategies to engage in researcher-practitioner collaborations, it is important to acknowledge that there is a myriad of challenges. There is clearly a danger of investing significant time and resources in pursuing researcher-practitioner collaborations that fail miserably. Several researchers describe the complexities of collaborating with community practitioners (Daley, James, Ulrey et al., 2010; Hains & Fouad, 1994; Ross, Loup, Nelson et al., 2010; Strickland, 2006) and the number of ways these efforts can fail. Hains and Fouad (1994) described the challenges they encountered when attempting to implement a randomized problem-solving intervention with lower income and predominately Latino/a and African American high school youth. Their publication offers an excellent postmortem of what can go wrong that includes being undermined by practitioners who do not perceive researchers as credible and working with populations whose range of personal and academic challenges may not enable them to complete the prescribed treatment conditions.
Daley et al. (2010) experienced difficulty finding common agreement about the problem under investigation until efforts were made to create a trusting relationship between the practitioners and researchers. [End Page 108] They also point out the difficulty of practitioners completing human subjects training protocols that often demand a high literacy level and some understanding of the research-world. The most significant challenge they identified was faculty researchers who were unable to compromise and share control for the project design, implementation, and analysis with their practitioner collaborators. For example, in conducting qualitative analyses, some faculty found it difficult to fully value the input of practitioners because they felt their own professional experience was more credible. In the end, Daley et al. acknowledge that sometimes the best scientists are not good candidates for establishing the egalitarian working environment necessary to establish effective researcher-practitioner collaborations.
Another challenge involves whether research-practitioners are valued by one’s university or department. While there are some universities and departments that value engaged scholarship, many characterize this type of work as outreach, which can be code for volunteer work. For many it is hard to understand whether and how such activities can be aligned to one’s research program and/or that these activities can produce quality research. For others, this type of work takes valuable time away from the office. Junior faculty members face the added danger of losing one or more years trying to launch this type of research, which can have disastrous implications for producing the quality and quantity of publications needed to achieve tenure. In sum, engaging in researcher-practitioner collaborations creates many uncertainties and as many colleagues have made clear to me over the years, researcher-practitioner collaborations are not for everyone.
The Important Role of Counseling Psychology
Until preparing this chapter, I did not fully realize that my career could be characterized as a collection of researcher-practitioner collaborations. Whatever success I may have achieved in developing and sustaining these collaborations is due to my professional training in counseling psychology. Counseling psychology uses a scientist-practitioner model whereby our clinical work with clients is an application of evidence-based methods and strategies. By working with clients in therapy, we learn the tremendous value of listening skills and that our expertise and insight is not as important as our ability to enable our clients to make meaning from the therapeutic experience. Counseling psychology places a strong value on working towards social justice by focusing efforts on decreasing inequities experienced by low income, high risk, and underrepresented populations. These efforts are informed by an ethical responsibility to use culturally responsive interventions and multicultural communication skills—all of which are necessary when working in community settings. In researcher-practitioner collaborations, the clients are most often individuals who receive services from an organization or system. The goal of working with practitioners is to discover and implement strategies that empower their clients to overcome existing challenges and inequities. From feminist psychotherapy (Enns, 1992) we are encouraged to understand the nature of power and, as “trained professionals,” the importance of redistributing this power using egalitarian strategies that enable practitioners to find their own voice in shaping the discourse and perspectives being offered. From emancipatory communitarianism (Blustein, McWhirter, & Perry, 2005; Prillentensky, 1997) we are encouraged to address social justice by examining whether and how our strategies empower practitioners to effectively intervene within the context surrounding their clients, enabling clients to successfully navigate their own challenges as they strive to realize their career and life goals. From my experiences, all of these skills and perspectives play an important role in setting the foundation for establishing effective researcher-practitioner collaborations.
Personal Journey with Researcher-Practitioner Collaborations
My engagement with researcher-practitioner collaborations began with a school dropout prevention grant I received while a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara. Personally, I wonder if being drawn to embracing a researcher-practitioner model naturally evolved from my enjoyment of managing group dynamics, conducting family therapy and group counseling, and having an odd penchant for always accepting the most challenging cases. These experiences enabled me to learn how to attend to verbal, nonverbal, and contextual communication cues simultaneously and to manage conflict, resistance, and challenges in a way that was not perceived as personal and could be reframed to improve the relational dynamics. I remember being concerned that if I did [End Page 109] not collaborate with practitioners that my own cultural identity and privileges associated with being a White male would cloud my interpretation of the problem and results; therefore, such collaborations could enable me to access different perspectives and interpretations. Multicultural skills were especially important when I worked in Milwaukee because I was generally the only White person and only male on a given collaborative team. While reflecting on these experiences, I am also aware that many in counseling psychology are likely more qualified to share their experiences on the topic of researcher-practitioner collaborations, including David Blustein, Nadya Fouad, Larry Gerstein, Maureen Kenny, Michael Mobley, John Romano, Rich Lapan, Karen O’Brien, Ellen McWhirter, Saba Ali, Krista Chronister, Erin Hardin, and Lisa Flores to name a few.
The two areas I have focused on throughout my career is the transition into high school and the transition from high school to early adulthood. I believe that interventions, programs, and services that enable all youth to graduate from secondary education with the skills and intentions to enter and complete a postsecondary program or degree has the potential of transforming the economic future of youth and the communities in which they live. My focus has been on urban school districts and specifically lower income youth and predominately Latino/a and African American youth. While this has been my focus, I believe that researcher-practitioner collaborations can effectively address a wide range of societal challenges, such as the needs of under and unemployed adults (Blustein, 2013) and challenges reflected throughout the counseling psychology specialties such as health psychology, prevention, ethnic and racial diversity, advancement of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues, and university counseling centers.
Another reason I am attracted to this work is my belief that the field of counseling psychology, and by extension, vocational psychology, is an applied social science whereby the goal of our research efforts is to translate basic science into practice (Dorn, 1984). Personally, I find this translation work challenging, exciting, and rewarding and much richer when practitioners and policy makers are involved. I have found that while a great deal of effort is spent developing and executing the collaboration, quality publications can be generated to ensure that one is able to meet the conditions necessary for merit, tenure, and promotion.
My researcher-practitioner collaborations revolve around the application of exemplarian action research (Coenen, 1998), which I believe offers a valuable strategy for addressing the complexity involved in creating collaborations that lead to implementing social justice oriented interventions (Solberg, 2003). Developed from Giddens’s Structuration Theory (1976, 1993), exemplarian action research involves three phases. The thematic phase involves the process of establishing a shared perspective by engaging in activities that enable researchers and practitioners to learn about each other’s world-view regarding the problem being investigated. Once a shared perspective is achieved, the second phase, crystallization, involves the design of new programs, services, or interventions that will address the problem. Finally, the exemplarian phase involves the implementation and evaluation of the program, service, or intervention. I believe that using an exemplarian action research strategy enabled the Achieving Success Identity Pathways program (ASIP; Solberg et. al., 1998) to become effectively implemented in high needs schools (Solberg, 2003; Solberg, Close & Metz, 2001).
Engaging in researcher-practitioner collaborations has made me a better researcher by calling out different ways to interpret data, deepening my understanding of key constructs, and helping me design studies that are more relevant and meaningful to practitioners. At a time when our impact is often being judged by our publication citations (e.g., h-index), engaged scholarship and specifically research-practitioner collaborations offer an opportunity to experience the impact of one’s work on both the lives of the practitioners seeking to improve the quality of their programs and services and of the children, youth, and adults being served. For the ASIP program, quasi-experimental studies found that Latino/a and African American students exposed to the program improved with respect to grades, credits earned, and courses passed over those who did not participate (ScholarCentric, n.d.).
Most rewarding, however, are the unrecorded moments. The principal calling to say congratulations when standardized test scores improved. The single teen parent who received a full scholarship to the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The 9th grade class that [End Page 110] successfully petitioned their principal to get a new—more committed—math teacher. The mother who, upon being denied entry at the front of the school, stood in a rainstorm and banged on the back door until the principal finally opened it. “I know it’s too late for my daughter to come in the front door,” she said, “but she says she needs to be here today.” A group of girls during one ASIP classroom conversation using the opportunity to help the teacher and our staff become aware that their fellow student was in an abusive relationship. There are many more stories, but one that stands out is an ASIP facilitated discussion recorded by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A male student shared that he had to move from California because people were selling drugs from his home. A female student responded immediately, saying that they also sell drugs from her home, but the key is to decide where you belong, to which she replied, “I belong in this school.” What was not recorded was a follow-up conversation the principal shared with me a week later. The male student in the story asked the principal if he could retake algebra that summer. When the principal told him that he was doing fine in math he replied, “Yes, but I know I can do better.” Most of these stories are from two high schools where students were entering the 9th grade averaging 4th and 5th grade level math and language arts skills. Many were pushed out of other high schools. Nearly all were low income and predominately Latino/a and African American. More recently, schools have inquired as to why my social-emotional learning assessment indicates that their top ranked student is highly at-risk for dropping out (Davis, Solberg, deBaca & Hargrove, 2014). After being directed to talk to the student, they often find out their best student is facing a number of life challenges, is homeless or, as in a recent case, that they recently tried to commit suicide.
My Chronicle of Researcher-Practitioner Collaborations
The recommendations described in the next three sections are for engaging in researcher-practitioner collaborations. One reason for providing a chronical history of my collaborations is to show that it is possible for collaborative efforts to culminate in publishable research and a research program. My first publications were co-authored with Pete Villareal, who was director of the Latino/a Educational Opportunity Program (Solberg, Hale, Villareal, & Kavanaugh, 1993; Solberg, O’Brien, Villareal, Kennel, & Davis, 1993; Solberg, Valdez, & Villareal, 1994). In addition to helping design and collect the student surveys, he and his staff provided a key interpretation of my dissertation data that strengthened the publication value tremendously (Solberg & Villareal, 1997). With Dennis Nord, Director of Career Services at UC Santa Barbara, we created the career search self-efficacy items and a model for why career search self-efficacy was an important area of focus (Solberg, Good, & Nord, 1994). Dennis also helped me gain access to undergraduates to collect the initial data, while Glenn Good taught me how to use principal components analysis to establish initial construct validity (Solberg, Good, Nord, et al., 1994). In my first faculty position at Loyola University Chicago, Steven Brown explained the important role of testing for mediators and moderators (Solberg, Good, Fischer, Brown, & Nord, 1995).
On internship at the University of Illinois, I sought to replicate some interesting research on Asian American help-seeking patterns (Atkinson & Gim, 1989; Atkinson, Whiteley, & Gim, 1990). Counselors Samira Ritsma and Ann Jolly, fellow intern Shiraz Tata, and I worked with the Asian American student association on the design of the instrument and the student leaders supported our efforts to collect data. While the primary goal of the research was to establish credibility for serving a population that was significantly underrepresented in the counseling center (Sue & Zane, 1987), we also were able to generate two publications (Solberg, Choi, Ritsma, & Jolly, 1994; Solberg, Ritsma, Davis, Tata, & Jolly, 1994). The culmination of these early collaborations launched two lines of research—career search self-efficacy (Solberg, et al., 1994; Solberg, 1998) and social-emotional learning factors associated with academic success (Davis, et al., 2014; Close & Solberg, 2008). More recently, these lines have been integrated in a manner that demonstrates the value of career search self-efficacy as a key mechanism in supporting positive youth development through its direct effects on a number of social-emotional learning skills (Solberg, Howard, Gresham, & Carter, 2012).
My recommendations predominately reference the following researcher-practitioner collaborations from my time at UW Milwaukee, UW Madison, and, more recently, Boston University. ASIP began in 1995 upon my arrival at UW Milwaukee. The project was [End Page 111] initially developed and implemented at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and UW Milwaukee as a college transition strategy (Solberg et al., 1998). ASIP involves providing students with personalized bar graphs about key social-emotional learning (i.e., resiliency) skills associated with academic success and conducting authentic conversations and goal setting activities to enable students to develop these skills. In 1998, ASIP was introduced at South Division High School, and the program and instruments were localized for high school and later middle school populations. At South Division, a staff of three provided a classroom intervention every other week to both 9th and 10th grade students (Solberg et al., 2001), and later the program was brought to North Division High School. As funding at South Division High School waned, an entrepreneur reached out and asked to translate ASIP into a curriculum that could be sold to schools and was rebranded as Success Highways (Solberg, 2006). I have continued to refine the measures, and with the support of educators in Las Vegas, I was able to create an elementary school version of the assessment. While at South Division, I also received funding from Milwaukee Public Schools District to open an after-school program that we used to further support students with tutoring and to provide access to GED programs for out of school youth. During this time, I began collaborating with the Latino Community Center and eventually became Board President, which enabled me to transfer operations of the afterschool program over to their talented staff.
In 2005, I joined the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) where I directed Wisconsin Careers, which is most notable for their online career information systems—WisCareers and CareerLocker. While at WCER, I served as a PI on a large-scale project with the Singapore Ministry of Education to localize, implement, and evaluate CareerLocker for their school system (eCareers.sg, n.d.). Concurrently, I received a subcontract with the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD-Youth) to conduct a national study of individualized learning plans (ILPs; Solberg, Phelps, Haakenson, Durham, & Timmons, 2012). NCWD-Youth is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) as a national technical assistance center supporting practitioner organizations and state leaders implement career and workforce development programs and services for youth. The initial ILP study lasted four years and consisted of a range of methods across several studies (Solberg, Wills, Redmond, & Skaff, 2014). A key element was working closely with 14 schools from four states to study their ILP practices and provide technical assistance.
In 2010, the move to Boston University began a relationship with the Rennie Center for Educational Research and Policy as they were also conducting a national policy analysis of ILPs (Rennie Center, 2011). Together we launched the Massachusetts Institute for College and Career Readiness (MICCR) with a researcher-practitioner grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES) in collaboration with MassINC (MassINC, n.d.) and the College and Career Readiness office of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE, n.d.). MICCR facilitates districts’ abilities to engage in evidence-based college and career readiness programs and services by embedding a senior national research fellow with each of the 15 district teams. MICCR Senior Research Fellows are receiving professional development on how to work with schools and make their research relevant to practitioners and policy makers. While not a complete representation of the researcher-practitioner collaborations I have engaged in during my career, the remainder of this paper draws primarily from these experiences to explore strategies to establish, maintain, and scale researcher-practitioner collaborations.
Recommendations for Initiating Researcher-Practitioner Collaborations
The recommendations are divided into three sections. This section describes the initial phase of initiating a researcher-practitioner collaboration, and the subsequent two sections will describe recommendations for launching a specific project and expanding your reputation and sustaining efforts, respectively.
During my interview with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I explained that I spent my initial years developing a theory and culturally responsive instruments that I hoped to translate into an intervention. As my colloquium came to a close, Professor and Vice Provost Adrian Chan promised that if I was selected, he would help me find a place to conduct the intervention, [End Page 112] which he did. The initial conversation at MATC was with a formal panel of four administrators. During this hour-long meeting, I rambled through my presentation and was interrupted several times to clarify points. After 20 minutes, the lead administrator stated that she had five more minutes before she needed to leave. I froze. Immediately, Adrian took over the conversation and spent the next five minutes brainstorming the next steps and what additional documentation they needed to decide on whether to provide financial support. After the meeting, Adrian gave me feedback on how I responded throughout the whole meeting and was most focused on whether I was able to manage the cultural dynamics of being a young, White male presenting to four African American women senior administrators. I explained that I didn’t know what to say when she told me there was only five minutes left, and he responded by saying that was the reason he was in the meeting—to support me in those moments. Thankfully, they did follow up, and this experience led to the collaboration with the student support services staff that launched the initial design and implementation of the Achieving Success Identity Pathways program (ASIP; Solberg et al., 1998).
When establishing research-practitioner collaborations, the art of selling one’s ideas or projects may often start with a verbal presentation to someone who knows nothing about our work. What I learned from Adrian is the importance of having a mentor and using the initiating conversations as learning opportunities. Over the past 20 years, I have learned the importance of sending a brief—no more than one or two pages—introduction to the idea prior to the meeting. Below are other strategies that have been helpful.
Don’t Talk So Much
Practice multiple elevator speeches that can generate interest in a one minute, five minute, and 10 minute summary. The one minute summary is for the highest administrators who may only have five minutes for the entire conversation (e.g., superintendents, executive directors, CEOs, governor’s staff, state officials, elected officials). Five minutes are for the midlevel staff with whom you can expect 30 minutes for the complete discussion, and 10 minutes is for an hour long discussion. The reason for the brevity is that the goal of an initiating conversation is to help practitioners develop a clear understanding of how the idea will leverage their interests. A short overview should result in questions from which you are able to more clearly understand the issues pertinent to the practitioner. This allows time to restate or reexamine the initial idea from the practitioners frame of reference. It is important to keep answers short and concise. Often the most important questions (e.g., cost, resources needed) may come later and may not surface at all if too much valuable time is spent offering multiple examples or providing long-winded explanations. Based on my experience with the MATC meeting, I learned the importance of always clarifying how much actual time the individuals have at the start of the meeting to ensure key points are presented to those in positions of authority and decision-making. And it is always encouraging when a meeting that is scheduled for 30 minutes goes a full hour.
Connect Your Idea to National Concerns That Are Valued by the Organization.
During my term as associate dean for research at Boston University, I found that faculty are often experts in their research domain but have trouble linking their work to a larger national context. This is especially important for grant writing but also for connecting with organizations that must engage in evidence-based practice that are likely to have an impact on major societal challenges. A wide range of national concerns can be addressed through career development programs and services including college and career readiness, improving college completion rates, improving high school graduation rates (also test scores, rigor of courses completed), reducing college student debt, increasing employability, supporting local labor market needs, managing unemployment rates, and supporting the future employment outlook among disconnected youth, individuals with disabilities, and court-involved youth and adults. The key is to know which of these or other national concerns are relevant to the practitioners with whom you hope to collaborate.
Don’t Play Into “Professor” Stereotypes.
I try to remain consciously aware that the people I am meeting for the first time are likely to hold a range of sentiments toward academia. Being introduced [End Page 113] in terms such as professor, doctor, faculty, graduate student, or doctoral student may conjure up a range of assumptions. Some of these assumptions are associated with living in elite ivory towers where we actively remain disconnected from the real world—a place where we are paid to know the answers but often fail to be aware of the most relevant questions. Our university’s overhead rates on federal grants are perceived as greedy when so many of our community-based organizations struggle to make payroll. When I am in a new audience, I often refer to myself as an “educator” with the hope that the term may invoke a more egalitarian relational base. Ms. Buendia from South Division High School (who was not even 5' tall) always referred to me as “the little professor.” She was awesome. While I personally prefer “Scott,” I recognize that this is a privilege of being a White male who expects to be respected for my social position and expertise. In these settings, I try to remember to introduce my female and colleagues of color as doctor or professor when working with practitioners because I cannot expect they will always receive the level of professional respect they deserve.
Remember that we, as faculty, are often perceived as possessing liberal political beliefs (“we lean to the left”), valuing politically correct speech, and most challengingly—valuing multiculturalism, which many believe is leading to the destruction of our American melting pot ideals (Schlesinger, 1992). In my personal experience, we can find a way to create effective collaborations when we are able to collectively focus on a common goal. At one high school, the principal held strong conservative beliefs that aligned with his Christian values. At one point we had a situation where a gay student was being targeted. The student’s counselor asked me to talk with the principal about the situation. The Principal’s response was firm and direct: “Do what needs to be done to protect the student.” Whatever his personal beliefs, his number one goal was to ensure success for all his students. As Board President of the Latino Community Center, I learned that many conservative benefactors provided funding for the day-to-day operations of a center that worked with low income young children on the south side of Milwaukee. The Bradley Foundation, a very conservative organization, provided the Center with significant operational funding. While the common goal was to help youth “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” there was a collective understanding that low income youth deserved a “pair of boots” to get started on their journey.
Once an Idea Is Perceived as Valuable, Transition the Discussion to “Next Steps.”
Initiating conversations has three phases: (a) introducing the idea and clarifying details through questions and answers, (b) exploring the feasibility of implementing the idea, and (c) discussing next steps to developing a collaborative effort. In my experience, too much time is spent on the first phase when b and c are the most important part of the conversation. Exploring how to implement the idea allows one to determine whether genuine interest exists. The words “let me get back to you on that,” are a pretty good sign that they may like the idea but are not ready or interested in moving forward.
When ASIP was well underway at MATC, my dean asked me to meet with Milwaukee high school principals to see whether ASIP could address high dropout rates. At the time, the governor was threatening to take over the Milwaukee high schools if they did not show improvement. My professional goal was to get back into middle and high school settings. I bring up this example because it wasn’t the South Division High School principal’s interest that was important to creating this researcher-practitioner collaboration in a challenging urban high school. What was most important was whether the teachers and educators would be interested. In this case, I met in small groups with educators responsible for 9th and 10th grade youth. The meetings were used to introduce the idea, listen to their feedback, and jointly determine the feasibility of the project. This opportunity led to a long relationship and a personal professional development opportunity that lasted many years.
Sometimes the initiating conversation is not about starting a new project but about increasing one’s social capital by making others in key positions aware of our work. A senior physics researcher at Boston University recently sought ideas on how to sustain his work-based learning project focused on supporting STEM skill development and interests among low income and racially and ethnically diverse youth. While very successful at creating a STEM work-based learning [End Page 114] program through NSF funding, no one in the state government or private sector knew of his work. The challenge was figuring out who in the state system to approach. With the move to Boston University and the launch of MICCR, I have had the opportunity to work closely with state officials from the office on College and Career Readiness. This relationship helps me navigate through the complex state system when a faculty member needs to find a state contact. In this case, I was referred to the legislative director for the state superintendent of schools, who was well versed in the state’s STEM efforts and was someone whom I had recently met on another state task force. The goal of the meeting was to let her know about the great work the professor was doing—nothing more. It was the first time the professor was having this type of meeting, so we did a lot of preparation related to the length and depth of his introduction for the hour-long meeting. The success of the meeting was that one of the next steps included an invitation to attend a state-level STEM coalition meeting and her interest in connecting us with other state leaders. Hardin Coleman, dean at Boston University’s School of Education, refers to the value of this type of interaction as “friend-building” instead of “fund-building” (Personal communication, 2014).
Designing a Collaborative Project
If practitioners express initial interest in one’s idea for a collaborative project, the following recommendations are designed to move from the “it’s a great idea” phase to the launch of a collaborative project.
Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities
After the initial meeting, it is critical to write down a summary of the project that describes the next steps and the various roles and responsibilities needed to execute those next steps. There are many ways to misunderstand one another, and it is better to verify and clarify specifics at the start. There are rare times when you do meet someone and you realize that you both see the problem and solution in a similar manner.
Using Our Multicultural Counseling Skills to Establish Credibility
As Daley et. al. (2010) described, establishing one’s credibility with practitioners is a key initial phase to establishing an effective collaboration. Sue and Zane (1987) described two forms of credibility—achieved and ascribed. In order to develop effective researcher-practitioner collaborations with people who have no idea who we are, there is a need to focus on strategic ways to achieve credibility. For the ASIP project in Milwaukee, it was one year before the principal perceived me as credible and two years before credibility was fully achieved among the teachers. After my first year working with the high school, a rumor spread through the school that I was moving away after having promised to work with them for multiple years—in actuality, I was attending APA in San Francisco. A second rumor surfaced that I was holding a meeting with our chancellor to discuss the high school’s problems. In fact, as chair of our School of Education’s Faculty Assembly, I requested the chancellor to meet with the assembly to explain why, at the governor’s request, UW Milwaukee agreed to approve and manage charter schools. Frustrated, I asked each team of teachers at the high school what I needed to do to achieve credibility. They immediately responded that I needed to teach in their classes. So for the next two years, I used spring break to teach two periods of social studies each day. This experience was carefully observed, as teachers often watched from the door. This opportunity enabled me to enter their world-view and understand in more depth the impact of intermittent attendance on the class flow. I revamped my ideas regarding classroom management and by the next year was much better at understanding their world-view and the day-to-day experience of working in a challenging urban school.
And there were other conditions unique to this high school that impacted whether and to what extent educators perceived me as credible. A couple of years prior to my starting at the high school, there had been a traumatic event in the school—a death of a student. Listening to many educators describe this period of time, it seems clear that leading up to this event the school was out of control, with many students in the hallways during class time. One teacher reported to me, though this claim is unsubstantiated, that a gun fell out of someone’s backpack during class. Fear of losing control [End Page 115] of the students was a constant theme during my early experiences at the high school, which certainly impacted my ability to create a trusting relationship since I was proposing that we create a personalized learning strategy that gave some control over to the students. For some educators, this strategy felt like losing control and fueled fears that the school could revert back to chaos at any moment.
Because the school was located in the midst of a number of rival gangs, my ability to establish a trusting relationship was also challenged by a constant sense of danger in the community. “Bet you don’t experience this every day in your ivory tower, do ya professor?” the assistant principal said to me one spring as we joined administrators and security outside as school let out. Spring was the time of year when youth were being let out of prison in mass, which upset whatever gang-related peace accords were in place. Security would call out the idling cars down the block that did not belong. No police were present, but cameras were running in case a shooting occurred and the perpetrators needed to be identified. The assistant principal was calling out the fact that I had the option—privilege—to choose whether or not to participate in their experience. It was a reminder that while I could be present and supportive of their experience, I was not completely part of their world, and for some this would forever limit my credibility. It also didn’t help that many educators in the building felt betrayed by an activist who they later found out used his activities at the school as the subject of his dissertation—all the while allegedly being paid by the district. As indicated above, after a year at the school, the principal was the first to openly indicate he trusted my goals and intentions. Upon returning to school in the fall, he called me into his office, gave me a pair of keys and said that from that point forward, he considered me one of his assistant principals.
When a principal from another high school in the northern part of the city asked me to work with her school, she introduced me to the faculty as one who had strategies to improve their school. For the first time, I experienced what it feels like to possess ascribed credibility. As a result, there was much less resistance to working on strategies to create and implement personalized learning strategies. I find that organizations offer much less resistance and more willingness to take risks when we reach a point in which organizations perceive us as possessing expertise and ideas that will support their mission and needs.
One of the more interesting examples of ascribed credibility occurred when I submitted a grant proposal to the city of Milwaukee. The proposal was to bring gang specialists from the Latino Community Center into the high school during lunch periods to meet with gang members—the school had already divided the lunch periods by gang affiliation to reduce conflict. When we met with city officials, one of the lead committee members stated that as far as he was concerned, if the Latino Community Center had an idea to improve the community, then that was all he needed to give his approval. The strategy paid huge dividends later when a drive-by shooting inflamed the community—we had two students dead and the accusations and rumors among students escalated. Bringing the gang experts to school that day proved critical to de-escalating tensions. By establishing relationships with the students outside of school and during the lunch meetings, these experts were able to manage and redirect student anger and anxiety in ways that de-escalated a very tense school day. Years later when I was at UW Madison, the United Way brought principals in from the region to discuss truancy. One principal shared that he learned about an exciting program from Milwaukee where gang experts work directly with youth in the schools. As a result of his replicating the strategy, he no longer needed safety aides in the school.
Our training in multicultural counseling skills has been my most important tool for achieving credibility. Working with practitioners from various backgrounds and serving specific groups such as Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino/as has enabled me to reframe my perspective on human development and change. For example, in explaining the nature of ASIP in my first days at MATC, I found that the program officers responsible for supporting each racial and ethnic minority group were drawn to ASIP for different reasons. Program officers working with Native American Indian students felt the empowerment component in ASIP was closely aligned with their vision quest, officers working with African American students felt the program focused on finding one’s personal power and perseverance, and officers working with Latino/a students connected with the program around the concept of respeto—self-respect and respect for family. I was once asked why I enjoy [End Page 116] working with different cultures both here and abroad, and my answer is that I believe that learning how to frame issues from different cultural contexts helps me perceive the world in more complex ways.
Introduce Ideas that Are Responsive to Practitioner Needs
To spend the time and resources necessary to establish research-practitioner collaborations, it is important that we, as researchers, have ideas that capture practitioner interests while being ready to adapt and modify our ideas based on their ideas and needs. In career development, we have a number of theories focused on career decision-making (Dawis & Lofquist, 1984; Dik & Duffy, 2013; Holland, 1997; Lent, Brown & Hackett, 1994; Phillips, Christopher-Risk & Gravino, 2001; Sampson, Reardon, Peterson, & Lenz, 2004; Savickas, Nota, Rossier, et al., 2009; Super, 1990; Super, Savickas & Super, 1996). Collectively, these ideas reflect a career decision-making paradigm that began with Parsons (1909). With the concept of self-efficacy becoming more mainstream, I have found that social cognitive career theory is especially simple to translate to funders and practitioners (SCCT; Lent & Brown, 2013; Lent et al., 1992).
As much as our profession values decision-making, our practitioners are being pressed to address a wider range of issues. Career development programs and services can address these issues by embracing a second paradigm that is emerging in our field; a paradigm in which career development and vocational psychology programs and services are believed to optimize positive youth and adult development (Lapan, 2004; Solberg & Ali, 2017a; Solberg, Soresi, Nota et al., 2007). For clinically depressed unemployed adults, the Jobs Project found that career development services decreased symptoms and inoculated adults from future depressive episodes (Vinokur, van Ryn, Gramlich & Price, 1991). Our ILP research found that access to quality career development was associated with the development of a number of important social-emotional learning skills (i.e., resiliency skills) such as goal setting, motivation, and self-efficacy which led to better academic outcomes and stress and health management (Solberg, Howard et al., 2012; Solberg et al., 2014). This concept was described in the ASIP monograph (Solberg et al., 1998), which focused on college persistence as the key outcome and was subsequently applied to college and career readiness among youth populations (Howard, Ferrari, Nota, et al., 2009; Solberg, Carlstrom, Howard, & Jones, 2007; Solberg et al., 2001; Solberg, Howard, Blustein, & Close, 2002 Solberg, Phelps, et al., 2012). The empirical foundation for designing career development programs and services is supported by efforts to delineate the key ingredients associated with career development program efficacy (Brown & Ryan-Krane, 2000; Howard, Solberg, Kantamneni, & Smothers, 2008; Whiston, Rossier, Jérôme, & Barón, 2017). The latest example is an excellent study by Justin Perry and his colleagues that demonstrated how exposure to career development activities was causally associated with improvement in a variety of academic outcomes (Perry, Wallace, & Mccormick, in press).
Create Win/Win Situations
Collaborations must support the collective interests of researchers, graduate students, and practitioners. In my collaboration with NCWD-Youth, using mixed methods to evaluate the promise of career development enabled us to provide conceptual papers (Solberg, Phelps, et al., 2012; Solberg, Richards, vanBruinswaardt, Chen, & Jarukitisakul, 2014) and research manuscripts that met the conditions of peer review (Solberg, Howard et al., 2012). This body of work was also used to develop national career development how-to guides and toolkits that translated these research-based efforts into consumable products for career development practitioners (NCWD-Youth, 2013, Solberg, Wills & Osman, 2013; vanBruinswaardt, Solberg & Jarukitisakul, 2015). For proponents of translation research (Wilson, Brady, & Lesesne et al., 2011), the generation of evidence-based products is a critical step in being able to influence whether practitioners and organizations will adopt career development practices. To have an impact on practice, the key is to balance the need to publish in high impact journals with the need to translate these evidence-based efforts into products that enable organizations to become interested in the design, implementation, and evaluation of career development programs and services. The impact of these products can be assessed using analytics that measure the number of downloads or postings. For example, two products developed with NCWD-Youth (NCWD-Youth, 2013; Solberg et al., [End Page 117] 2013) have been used by state leaders to guide their career development design and implementation efforts (Arizona Department of Education, 2016; Colorado Department of Education, 2014, MA DESE, 2013; Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2016). The ILP How To Guide (Solberg et al., 2013) was identified in a joint letter to school counselors from the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services (2014) as a resource to consider in designing and implementing career development programs and services. More recently, the Council of State Governments (in press) in partnership with the National Conference of State Legislatures convened the National Task Force on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities. Their report encourages states to use the State Guide on Career Development (vanBruinswaardt et al., 2015) and the research on ILPs to guide the development of state policies aimed at ensuring youth with disabilities receive access to quality career development programs and services. Sullivan (2012) cited our research as the foundation for his recommendation that Wisconsin consider implementing ILPs (titled Academic and Career Plans [ACPs]) as one component necessary for maintaining future economic competitiveness. The recommendation was accepted by the Wisconsin legislature, which has mandated ACPs for all middle and high school youth starting in 2017 (Wisconsin State Legislature, 2015).
Leverage Resources and Funding
Funding helps researchers gain access to dedicated time from graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and researchers (Burrow-Sánchez, Martin, & Imel, 2016). At UW-Madison, I learned about the researcher status as part of WCER and its importance in supporting faculty funding. Researchers are individuals who live from project to project; therefore, they only receive a salary if they acquire grants and contracts that include their services. There is wide variation as to whether researchers have principal investigator status, but the key is that these individuals are often the entrepreneurs who support the success of large research institutions. By connecting with a university or working within a research center or laboratory, researchers become methodology and/or content specialists and are often written into a number of projects.
Funding efforts are most successful when researcher-practitioner teams consist of experts and practitioners who collectively contribute the range of skills necessary to effectively execute the project design and goals. NCWD-Youth and ODEP staff have been instrumental (and patient) in helping me learn how to translate career development efforts into policy and language that is more accessible to practitioners, families, and youth. At times, this work is translated by other subject matter experts to ensure it can be understood by families (PACER, 2014) and youth (see Figure 1; U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, n.d).
For the MICCR project, the collaboration includes Boston University, the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, MassINC, and the College and Career Readiness team from the MA DESE (MICCR, n.d. (a)). Each organization offered unique intellectual and operational resources that enabled the project to be successfully implemented. Separate research organizations unaffiliated with universities (e.g., Abt, American Institutes for Research, Education Development Center, WestEd, and others) also provided a range of expertise. Many of these organizations are leading large projects themselves (e.g., regional education laboratories; U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, n.d.) and are interested in how our expertise can leverage additional funding for projects originating from the university.
Bringing Successful Career Development Interventions and Programs Up to Scale
As one’s efforts to design and implement successful career development interventions, programs, and services prove successful, new challenges will present themselves with respect to replicating these efforts across multiple settings. Scaling refers to the idea that once an intervention or program has proved its efficacy in one setting, the next phase is to learn how to modify the intervention or program so it can have the same positive outcomes in varied settings. I have had two experiences with bringing efforts to scale. In the first instance, the ASIP program was turned into a commercial product that is distributed nationally. The second instance is the ILP research whereby state leaders and districts are seeking support to design and implement [End Page 118] career development programs that are adapted to the context of their school community and labor market conditions. This section offers recommendations for building capacity among schools and organizations that enable them to provide quality implementation of evidence-based career development programs and services. The recommendations include the need to (a) provide professional development in a team format, (b) use a project management system to track progress of each organization’s efforts, and (c) make professional development materials free and highly accessible using webinar technology.
Establish Professional Learning Communities
As ASIP became popular in Wisconsin, the cost structure associated with my hiring, training, and managing staff as well as being stretched across too many schools proved overwhelming. As I was preparing to move to Madison, Wisconsin, I was extremely fortunate that the ASIP program was eventually picked up by an entrepreneur (ScholarCentric, n.d.; Solberg, 2006). Retitled with a more appropriate marketing title—Success Highways—this opportunity enabled the program’s core components to be distilled into a manual that could be expanded nationally.
The first hint that ASIP could be replicated was the result of a collaboration that began after Salvatore Soresi, Laura Nota, and Lea Ferrari from the Larios Lab at the University of Padova. They brought the ASIP team to Italy to provide professional development to school psychologists interested in implementing the program. It was rewarding and affirming to see that the strategies could be replicated in a different language and culture. A year later, we presented in a conference in Padova and had the opportunity to meet with our first cohort of psychologists. Midway through our discussion, one male psychologist shared a question. While my Italian is choppy, his tone and inflection were something I had seen before. He felt alone. While ASIP helped him become aware of the positive influence and power educators have, he was the only one in his building aware of this. Looking around the room it was clear why the cohort wanted to meet—they each were having the same experience and had no one to share it with.
One of the reasons ASIP was effectively implemented at the Milwaukee high school was that we worked with smaller learning communities of educators who learned and implemented the activities as teams. At this time, the idea of professional learning communities (PLCs) became popular in schools (DuFour, Dufour & Eaker, 2009; Vescio, Ross & Adams, 2008). PLCs provide a perfect strategy for scaling efforts because it works with a leadership team of educators responsible for collaborating on the program design and coordinating the professional development to other educators. It also provides a common experience that serves as an important support system when trying to gain whole school buy-in for the career development efforts. A national survey of educators conducted by the American Psychological Association also found that PLCs were the preferred method of professional development over attending conferences or individual professional development workshops (Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, 2006). Directing states, communities, districts, schools and/or organizations to create a PLC designed to receive professional development and manage the implementation of the career development program and services enables one to provide these services in an efficient and effective manner. With NCWD-Youth, we worked concurrently with 14 schools from four states to support their implementation of ILPs (Solberg et al., 2014). To achieve this, we all met at a hotel in New Orleans where 14 round tables were placed in one large room. In addition to presentations, the teams were provided planning time, with myself and colleagues providing consultation support upon request. Use of a PLC model and recommendations for how to select the members who should be included have been described in the ILP How To Guide (Solberg et al., 2013) and policy brief (NCWD-Youth, 2013). In schools, important members include school counselors, special education and career and technical education administrators, a school administrator (e.g., principal or assistant principal), and a few teacher leaders. Singapore, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Massachusetts have used this strategy to launch their respective ILP efforts as part of their respective full-scale implementation efforts.
Use Project Management Systems to Track Progress
Supporting teams in designing and implementing career development programs and [End Page 121] services such as ILPs can be managed more effectively when using a project management system. A simplified system empowers the organization to develop a robust year-long implementation plan (available at MICCR, n.d. (c)). Figure 2 displays three of the sections of the project management system version being used in the MICCR project. The first section identifies the problem related to current performance outcomes that are felt to be improved through the design and implementation of career development programs and services. For teams interested in college and career readiness, example problem statements may record data related to college graduation rates, percentage of students entering a two or four year postsecondary credential or program within the first year following high school graduation, percentage of students completing a career pathways and/or college preparation curriculum, and so forth. The next section directs the team to establish SMART goals (specific, management, achievable, realistic, and time-specific) that are believed to address the problem they identified. Section 3 directs each team to identify an action plan and tasks associated with each action plan that will enable the team to successfully achieve each SMART Goal. Section 3 also helps the team think through the task details of how to mobilize the people and resources within their organization to successfully and effectively implement a given action plan. Teams are also directed to create a communication strategy as one of their action plans by identifying who needs to receive information about the nature and promise of the career development programs and services and what communication format will be used to present that information (see Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, n.d., for examples of strategies used to communicate the nature and value of their ILP efforts). The likelihood that teams will fully implement their plans is facilitated by creating timelines and identifying team members responsible for each task.
For the MICCR project, the project management system enables our support team to track the progress of the 15 districts. The system is also malleable such that teams can modify their goals, action plans, and tasks in response to new opportunities and challenges. Educators seem especially drawn to the project management system because it is concrete, provides timelines, and identifies who is responsible for each task.
Use Webinars and Websites to Help Organizations Gain Access to Career Development Resources and Materials
Another recommendation to help scale our efforts is to use webinars to generate professional development and implementation resources. By transferring recorded webinars to YouTube, they becomes easily accessible. Face-to-face convenings are then able to focus primarily on creating strategies to implement the career development program activities. By adding these webinars, as well as other career development resources to our research websites, they become both a means for disseminating our work and increasing its impact as well as a way to build and expand our reputation. For MICCR, we use national webinars to discuss core issues related to college and career readiness and more timely, regional webinars to discuss issues raised by the district teams (these are all available at MICCR, n.d. (b)). For example, William Symonds, co-author of the Pathways to Prosperity Report, was the lead expert on a discussion of career literacy. One of the lead researchers with CASEL, Roger Weissberg, led a conversation on the interface between social-emotional learning and career development. When MICCR districts were interested in the similarities and differences among online career information systems, we held a special webinar that highlighted three vendors who are working with Massachusetts districts.
The website is also important for disseminating products that enable organizations to design their own career development programs and service strategies. As noted, Wilson et al. (2011) describe the importance of products as a means of translating evidence-based practice in ways that facilitate interest and engagement in adopting new practices (e.g., ILPs). Career development products are especially valuable when they offer tangible information on the nature of the practice and ideas on how to implement the practice with quality and fidelity. Two examples of websites focused on disseminating career development products related to ILPs can be found at NCWD-Youth (n.d.) and MICCR (n.d. (c)).
Managing the Existential Crisis
While the bulk of the chapter has focused on the opportunities and policy impact one can have by engaging in researcher-practitioner collaborations, there [End Page 123] is often a personal cost when working in low income and high risk settings. I know many have had similar experiences to what I am describing in this final section and expect that many have also had to address this alone, as there is rarely a professional setting in which to share these experiences.
During my time at South Division High School in Milwaukee, I was certainly in the midst of an existential crisis. It was caused by being faced with the meaninglessness and incomprehension of living in the richest country yet having children who are homeless (or “couch surfing” from place to place) and living in urban war zones due to drug and gang violence. For these youth, school was a safe and secure island. The biggest fear for too many was whether they would make it home alive from school each day. Privileged to work in a university setting, I believe that there is no greater purpose than to work alongside the many amazing practitioners who devote their professional lives to making a difference in these high needs areas of our society. I recognize that I choose to devote my time to high needs schools and that researcher-practitioner collaborations occur in a variety of less challenging settings.
To date, I have not shared the more personal experiences of being at South Division. Part of the reason is due to emotions surrounding events I witnessed or found myself managing. Another part is due to the privilege of being a close part of the daily experience of some of the most amazing educators who make the choice to battle for the lives of youth, knowing full well that the odds are always against them. The challenge in sharing these experiences for me is that there is an intimacy that comes with witnessing the pain, the struggle, and the victories that one can only know through the closeness that occurs in such a collaboration. It has been an honor to have administrators, educators, and policy makers share their often secret world-view with me in what Goffman (1956) refers to as back-stage interactions and to receive what Sue and Zane (1987) referred to as the gifts of their perspective and experiences. The educators at South Division opened me up to seeing the world from their perspective. The result is that expressing empathy with other educators and administrators feels deeper and more authentic because I have changed as a researcher and a person.
For a long time this existential crisis manifested in anger and for a time, difficulty connecting with the day-to-day struggles within the university when so many youth and educators were less than five miles from campus with day-to-day struggles that seemed at the time to be more real and important. Through the years I have learned that many in counseling psychology have been similarly moved as the result of working in urban or other community settings such as Native American reservations and women’s shelters or working with populations of individuals who are court-involved, are chronically unemployed, or have severe mental health or other disability conditions.
One of my most regretful experiences was when a student with a disability from another school was shot and killed a block from our school. He had been suspended and was just hanging out on a street corner during a so called “spring cleaning” period, when gang members are being let out of prison. My regret was not being there to support the teachers who held the child as he died. Working in my office, I knew an event had occurred but could not get any information as to what happened until later. I didn’t listen to my gut that day, which further confirms the fact that we, as faculty, always have the privilege of being involved or not being involved. My response following the tragedy was to work with the special education department to launch an in-school suspension program to ensure that our students with disabilities would never be on the streets. We coordinated efforts with staff who had a special way of being able to work with our most challenging students, using informal strategies that would prevent an out-of-school suspension from being necessary. We added a component to the ASIP intervention for special education classes that presented only one resiliency topic at a time and expanded the strategies we used to discuss and process the topic—this effort became the template we used to distill the program into the Success Highways curriculum. While certainly not a disability expert, I feel privileged to collaborate with ODEP and NCWD-Youth on issues related to designing career development programs and services that support all youth, including youth with disabilities. I am proud of the fact that states are adopting an all means all approach to career development (a few examples include the following: Arizona Department of Education, 2016; Colorado Department of Education, 2014; and Wisconsin [End Page 124] Department of Instruction, 2016. None of it takes away the guilt and pain I continue to bear about not being there that day. I believe the culmination of these experiences has enabled me to embrace the challenges my wonderful son experiences each day to feel normal and accepted.
I believe that building researcher-practitioner collaborations in our most challenging settings takes three qualities: vision, courage, and magic (Solberg, 2009). Vision refers to our theory, research, and methods that are needed to discover new insights into complex challenges and shape the design, implementation, and evaluation of career development programs and services. These efforts take tremendous courage. The educators I worked with were teaching in the most challenging settings imaginable and yet chose to stay because of their dedication to serving their students. So many of the most pressing issues in our community will take equal courage and dedication if one chooses to tackle them. These practitioners often experience pain and suffering from losing more than they win. And they know that if they don’t strive to support everyone they care for, then who will? My graduate students and staff who worked alongside me in these settings had that courage. They experienced loss each time they believed in a student who later dropped out, was expelled, or died. Watching talented youth engage in self-defeating behavior is always an emotional challenge. It takes courage to keep working in these settings when you know that tragedy does happen. Emotionally, it takes a toll to keep going when losing youth to gang violence or learning on the first day of the fall term that one of our shining graduates and her mother died in a car crash the weekend after she moved into her college dorm. These events are always jarring. And, perhaps the most important support we can offer is our willingness to bear witness and be affected by these types of events as we support the practitioners working on the frontlines of our communities’ most pressing challenges.
And finally, magic. Magic refers to the power of relationships and how, as caring and encouraging adults, we have the power to transform people’s lives. Emerson (1887) wrote the following: “Friendship is not the open hand nor the kindly smile, it’s the inspiration that comes when one finds someone who believes in them and is willing to trust them.” Inspiring others to find the courage necessary to reach their true potential, whether it be clients or practitioners who have the resources necessary to design programs and services that enable others to reach their true potential, that is the heart and soul of what counseling psychology brings to our collaboration opportunities with fellow researchers and practitioners.
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