PAR in Play: Four Snapshots

How does participatory action research happen on the ground? Here are four snapshots, all from the field of education, that show how grantmakers, evaluators, and other stakeholders got PAR projects going and what they learned in the process:

From community teams to statewide policy

To "develop trusting partnerships," there was "plenty of schmoozing time over spaghetti dinners," recalled the lead evaluator of a PAR research program to engage parents, nonprofit service providers, and teachers in interventions for children who showed signs of developmental delays.

The evaluators also had another objective: to create a research and consultation team that reflected the diversity of community. Their message was "we are here to help you show how good you are at what you do." According to a key funder of the project, "we knew the approach was working when community people and teachers were anxious that they didn’t have data. We’d never heard of people that interested in getting data."

One innovative technique devised by the evaluator team was to turn participant observations into "letters from the children" to parents and teachers, stating what the child was good at and where he or she needeared help. "It unpacked the data and made it useable," said the program officer. Data were also aggregated, and an outside team of evaluator advisors checked the rigor of the work.

In the end, the grantmaker concluded, the project not only "embedded at the community level an infrastructure of capacity" but also affected policy by influencing the governor, who credited the work as he launched a statewide pre-kindergarten initiative.

Making "children larger and cracks smaller"

One study into the causes of high secondary school dropout rates started by identifying teacher leaders (they were called "connectors") in an elementary, middle, high school feeder pattern. Evaluators met with the connectors and "started by doing some reading together." As the evaluators of the project recalled, when asked what their questions were, the connectors said that" they knew nothing about where the kids went" after leaving their classrooms.

The connectors realized that they had never visited the other elementary and middle feeder schools, nor the high school. The connectors decided that each of them would follow one student as they transitioned from elementary to middle school, or middle school into high school. Together with the evaluators, they developed observation and interview protocols. Over the course of two years, they observed classrooms and informal areas of schools, such as hallways and the cafeteria, and conducted teacher and student interviews. They reflected collectively on what they learned and made recommendations to their faculties and administrators for changes to create greater program articulation and clearer expectations between middle school and high school.

The evaluators documented the work of the connectors and evaluators, the findings of the connectors, and the actions taken in a report "Making Children Larger and Cracks Smaller."

Measuring the effects of college courses in prison

When the decision was made to use PAR to study the effect of the loss of college education opportunities among incarcerated women, the first step was to build a committee including both outside researchers and inmates. The evaluators then held a course for inmates on research methods. Many collective decisions followed: the basic research questions, the racial and ethnic mix of the lead research team and focus group facilitators, who on the team would take the lead on which research methods, who among the inmates would remain anonymous in final reporting.

The full evaluation design included archival analysis of the prison college since its inception; one-on-one interviews by inmate-researchers; focus groups with inmates, faculty, inmates' children, and college presidents; in-depth interviews with former inmates, correction officers, and administrators; surveys of faculty; student narratives; and statistical analysis of former inmates who had attended college while in prison.

The approach, that is, produced both qualitative and quantitative findings. Personal testimonies demonstrated dramatic, positive change in self-esteem and behavior among those who had attended college in prison. Statistical analyses showed a reduction in recidivism for those who had studied while incarcerated.

The ripple effects of skill and leadership development

After a foundation had decided to invest in a school change effort that would involve two community organizations and bring parents actively into the process, a grantmaker recalled, "we decided to take them up on their interest in exploring action research to help build community capacity." What followed was a process that brought several parents, most of them Latino, into active collaboration with a researcher over a three-year period.

Parents weren't certain at the start that they wanted to do research, said the evaluator, "but they were definitely interested in improving their children's education." To carry out the project, the parents developed interviewing, note-taking, writing, public speaking, and documentary-video skills. Uncovering problems and addressing them, they presented to teachers, administrators, and at conferences, learning how to approach different audiences "in a respectful way."

Mothers organized a workshop at the school. "They developed confianza," explained the researcher, "a Spanish word that doesn't translate well into English but involves trust and respect. The ripple effects of their work were almost countless." Among the concrete outcomes: the development of a new parent-teacher center at the school.

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