As I collaborate with the REL team on the new RELs, I want to share some of the successes of the RELs that finished their work early this year. We expect the new RELs to build on these successes and to engage in new, innovative work that I will discuss in a future blog.
As we look back at the large body of work that the last cohort of RELs produced, I want to share some exciting results. Over three-quarters of participants in REL researcher-practitioner partnerships who responded to the REL Stakeholder Feedback Survey (SFS) reported that they used or were in the process of using the research or data that they learned about through the REL partnerships. On average across the last three years, an additional 17 percent reported that they were making plans to use research or data presented by the REL:
While these survey results are promising, I want to provide a more vivid picture of how the RELs partnered with stakeholders to use evidence to improve teaching and learning. Read on to learn how REL work has been integral to education policy and practice across the country.
REL Mid-Atlantic and REL Southeast both engaged in projects that supported efforts to safely educate students during the pandemic:
- In Pennsylvania, REL Mid-Atlantic helped the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) provide evidence to inform the reopening of schools in the state during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. REL Mid-Atlantic worked with PDE to produce an extensive memo that included (1) a rapid review of existing evidence on public-health and educational issues relevant to the reopening of schools, (2) findings from interviews with a cross-section of stakeholders from across Pennsylvania to assess concerns and challenges related to reopening, and (3) agent-based modeling simulations of the potential spread of COVID-19 under alternative approaches to reopening schools. The two largest school districts in the state—the School District of Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh Public School District—along with at least 25 other school districts and one Catholic archdiocese drew on the findings in the memo to make decisions about whether and how to reopen schools.
- Shortly after two of four of REL Southeast's teacher guides were released in early 2020, schools across the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The REL realized that the content of the guides—originally created to support teachers in working with families to facilitate their children’s literacy development—would be immediately useful to parents across the county who were suddenly thrust into the role of teacher for their children at home. The content of the guides was based on the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide: Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade.
REL Southeast made all the content, which included videos and activities, available on the REL website so that parents could easily access them and use them to support their children during that difficult time.The landing page for the content—Supporting Your Child's Reading at Home—has been visited nearly 130,000 times since April of 2020. And landing pages for the four guides for teachers—A Kindergarten Teacher's Guide, A First Grade Teacher's Guide, A Second Grade Teacher's Guide and A Third Grade Teacher's Guide—have each been accessed between 1,300 and 7,500 times since their release.
REL West and REL Midwest both worked with states in their regions to support student health and the need to identify and recruit more teachers. These topics proved to be particularly important as a result of the pandemic:
- Robla Elementary School District (RESD) and several other districts in California’s Central Valley began offering telemedicine services during the 2017/18 school year as part of a broader “whole-child” strategy for improving student health, well-being, and attendance. Telemedicine is the remote evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of patients using telecommunications technology. RESD contracted with and paid Hazel Health, a telemedicine provider that operates virtual health clinics in school settings. The telemedicine visits were free to students and families and did not require scheduled appointments. To learn more about the implementation of the program and whether it was associated with students staying in school throughout the day, RESD enlisted REL West for assistance.
REL West's study of the telemedicine services found that districtwide, a little over one-quarter of students used the services at least once over two years, with nine percent of students using telemedicine multiple times. Non-communicable physical illnesses/conditions such as stomach aches, headaches, allergies, and asthma were consistently the most common reason for school-based telemedicine visits across the two years of implementation. Ninety-four percent of all telemedicine visits resulted in students returning to class and receiving, on average, three more hours of instruction in the school day. Approximately 39 percent of Black students used telemedicine services compared with 17 percent of Asian students. Due to these findings, the district decided to continue with the program. The telemedicine provider is working to identify possible reasons for the differences in use by different student groups to ensure that all students are comfortable accessing the services.
- Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan was experiencing teacher shortages in several subjects and geographic areas. This led Michigan members of the REL Midwest Alliance for Teacher Preparation to partner with the REL to examine nonteaching-certified teachers’ reasons for not teaching and incentives that could motivate them to return to the classroom. The REL Midwest study found that salary and certification/recertification requirements were among the most frequent barriers to teachers entering or remaining in the teaching profession.
As a result, the Michigan Department of Education launched the “Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educator” campaign, which seeks to recruit nonteaching educators into the teacher workforce. The first wave of the campaign, which began in April 2021, recruited educators with expired teaching certificates by reducing—and in some cases eliminating—professional learning requirements for recertification. The second wave, which began in October 2021, recruited teachers who had a valid certificate but were not teaching in public schools. As of January 2022, 218 educators have been recertified or issued a teaching permit, and 27 educators are in the pipeline to reinstate their teaching credentials. Of those with valid certificates, 123 educators started in a teaching position in fall 2021 and an additional 244 educators took a non-teaching assignment, such as day-to-day substitute teaching.
Concerns about the lack of equity in educational opportunities and in disciplinary practices led stakeholders to partner with REL Appalachia and REL Northwest:
- Throughout the country, students are often encouraged to study Algebra I in middle school so that they can take more advanced math courses in high school and can graduate with a college-ready diploma. Concerned that economically disadvantaged students and English learners might be taking Algebra I later than their peers and earning college preparatory diplomas at lower rates than other students, Virginia’s Department of Education asked REL Appalachia for assistance analyzing the state’s data. The REL researchers found that the Department of Education’s hypotheses were correct. They found that, among all 5th graders rated as “advanced proficient” on the state’s math assessment, economically disadvantaged and English learner students were less likely take Algebra before 9th grade and less likely to earn a college preparatory diploma. As a result of these findings, the Virginia Department of Education asked the REL to work with school districts across the state to analyze data to identify student course-taking patterns and to further examine district-level policies and practices that may be contributing to the inequitable course-taking patterns and outcomes.
- REL Northwest undertook several projects with the Equity in School Discipline (ESD) collaborative: a cross-state collaborative of districts, state education agencies, community-based organizations, and institutions of higher education in Oregon and Washington committed to increasing equity in school climate and discipline policies and practices. ESD sought to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline practices and to eliminate disproportionately high rates of exclusion for students who identify as American Indian, Black, and Hispanic. REL Northwest and ESD district leaders in four districts partnered to co-design and pilot training materials to help school and district teams increase equity in school discipline practices. REL Northwest also produced a tool so other districts and states can identify discipline disproportionality.
REL Pacific helped to make a language program more evidence-based:
- Recognizing the role of the school in sustaining Kosrae’s cultural and linguistic heritage and preparing students for the global world, Kosrae Department of Education (KDOE) leaders reached out to REL Pacific for support in creating a new language immersion policy and program that better supports the goal of building student proficiency in both Kosraean and English. REL Pacific supported KDOE by providing coaching on the research behind effective bilingual education models, policy implementation frameworks, and language assessments. REL Pacific and Region 18 Comprehensive Center (RC18) subsequently collaborated to provide complementary supports to ensure KDOE had increased capacity to implement its bilingual language policy in schools across the island. As REL Pacific continued support in best practices in bilingual instruction, classroom observation, and teacher professional learning, RC18 provided supports such as bilingual materials development and financing options for the new policy. KDOE began piloting the new policy in two elementary schools in the fall of 2021.
REL Central supported Nebraska by providing evidence-based resources and training to support the implementation of new legislation:
- In 2018, the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act was passed to decrease the number of struggling readers in grade 3 across the state. The Nebraska State Board of Education (NSBE) and the Nebraska Department of Education enlisted REL Central’s support in providing the state’s elementary school teachers with evidence-based practices for the teaching of reading. To meet this need, REL Central reviewed strategies in eight What Works Clearinghouse practice guides on reading, writing, and literacy instruction and distilled the information into summary documents that were aligned with the state’s initiative. Each document is featured on NDE’s NebraskaREADS website and each describes a practice guide recommendation, how it should be implemented, and discusses the appropriate grade level or target student population (for example, English learners). REL Central also provided trainings to support regional education service unit staff and school-based educators in reviewing, selecting, and testing evidence-based reading strategies.
Finally, through applied research studies, REL Northeast and Islands and REL Southwest helped education leaders answer important questions about whether students in certain localities had equitable access to important services. These studies informed leaders’ decisions about state programs or indicators:
- In an effort to increase the percentage of children ready for kindergarten, Vermont passed Act 166 in 2014 that provided access to high-quality prekindergarten (pre-K) for all 3- and 4-year-olds and for 5-year-olds not yet in kindergarten. As universal pre-K began in the 2016/17 school year, officials were concerned about unequal distribution and availability of high-quality pre-K programs across the state. The Vermont Agency of Education, the Agency of Human Services’ Department for Children and Families, and Building Bright Futures (Vermont’s early childhood advisory council) participated in the Vermont Universal PreK Research Partnership with REL Northeast & Islands to answer these important questions. Through one study, the REL found that although the majority of pre-K children were enrolled in the highest quality programs, some children had less access to high quality programs in their home districts. These findings led the Vermont legislature to maintain a provision that allows families to enroll their children in programs outside their home district.
- Texas House Bill 3 (HB3), a comprehensive reform of the state’s school finance system passed in 2019, established a college, career, and military readiness outcomes bonus, which provides extra funding to districts for each annual graduate demonstrating college, career, or military readiness under the state accountability system. Leaders at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) were concerned that it may be hard for small and rural districts to demonstrate career readiness through the required accountability measure. Through a partnership with TEA, REL Southwest conducted a study that found that there were no substantive differences by district size or locale with respect to the percentage of students meeting the career readiness standard. Further, the study found that students who fell into two of the alternative career readiness options—CTE completers and work-based learners—had higher rates of college enrollment than graduates who met the existing career readiness accountability standard. The study also indicated that CTE completers had higher rates of either college persistence or of credential attainment after high school than graduates who met the existing career readiness accountability standard. These findings led the Commissioner of Education to recommend, and the Texas legislature to create, a new measure of career readiness in the state accountability system that met the needs of the districts across the state.
From these examples, one takeaway is clear: REL work can make a difference. RELs supported educators’ and policymakers’ efforts to improve educational programs, policies, and outcomes through use of research and evidence-based practice between 2017 and 2022. The new RELs will continue this work and, as I will write about in a future blog, they will also undertake some new types of projects. Until then, please visit the new REL website or reach out to me at Elizabeth.Eisner@ed.gov if you have questions about the REL program and how it can help your community.
Liz Eisner is the associate commissioner of the Knowledge Use Division at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
[i] One REL contract—REL Southwest (REL SW)—is on a different schedule. The current REL SW contract ends in late November of 2022 and the next REL SW contract will begin the day after the current contract ends. The contracts that just ended were the 2017-2022 contracts and the contracts that just started are the 2022-2027 contracts.