IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Improving the Reading Skills of Middle School Students with and at Risk for Disabilities

Two girls work together to write in notebooks.

NCSER celebrates Middle Level Education Month this year by highlighting some of our current research projects aimed at supporting the literacy skills of middle school students with and at risk for disabilities. Data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) indicate that in 2019, 68% of eight graders with disabilities scored “Below NAEP Basic” in reading compared to 22% of students without disabilities, a gap that had grown larger over the previous decade. The urgent need to improve the reading skills of middle school students with disabilities has led to some important NCSER-funded research projects.  

Sharon Vaughn and Leticia Martinez at the University of Texas, Austin and Jeanne Wanzek at Vanderbilt University, along with their colleagues, are testing the efficacy of Promoting Adolescents' Comprehension of Text (PACT), a fully developed reading comprehension intervention for middle school students with evidence of efficacy for students without disabilities. The current study will be the first efficacy trial of PACT that focuses specifically on students with disabilities. PACT is a text- and inquiry-based reading comprehension intervention with instructional supports for teachers and material for students in general education classrooms. In this large-scale, multi-site study, the team is using a randomized controlled trial in approximately 80 eighth-grade social studies classrooms, each with at least two students with disabilities. The team will examine the intervention’s impact on student reading and social studies outcomes, whether the impact differs depending on level of teacher fidelity or by student characteristic, and the intervention’s cost-effectiveness over the typical expenditures.

PACT is also being used as the evidence-based literacy intervention in a project designed to support middle school teachers’ knowledge and practices and improve reading and content area knowledge among students with disabilities. Jade Wexler at University of Maryland, College Park and Elizabeth Swanson at the University of Texas, Austin, along with their colleagues, are developing and testing a model for instructional leaders to provide ongoing support to content-area middle school teachers as they implement PACT. More specifically, the team will be developing an intervention package that includes a multi-stage, adaptive intervention coaching model to systematically tailor support to teachers as they implement Tier 1 literacy practices (in this case, the PACT intervention) in their content areas (English language arts, social studies, and science) to improve reading outcomes for students with disabilities. The package will also include a professional development program to train instructional leaders on how to implement the coaching model with teachers effectively.

Deborah Reed at the University of Iowa and her colleagues are also focusing on integrating literacy instruction with content-area instruction, but this team is focused on the Tier 2 level. They are developing and testing an intervention for middle school students with or at risk for reading disabilities who need support in literacy and text-based content in science and social studies. Pairs of students will alternate reading science and social studies texts, with specific academic vocabulary language, on a digital platform. This platform will provide scaffolded support and allow opportunities for individual work in building related reading and writing skills. Passages on each science or social studies topic repeat 85% or more of the unique words but in different contexts to support students’ ability to recognize and read the academic vocabulary. The overall aim of the intervention is to improve student literacy as well as science and social studies performance.

Marcia Barnes and her team at Vanderbilt University are testing the efficacy of a reading comprehension intervention, Connecting Text by Inference and Technology (Connect-IT), with middle school students with or at risk for reading disabilities. Connect-IT, developed with a prior IES grant, was designed to improve inference-making and reading comprehension in this population. In the current study, the research team will examine the impact of the intervention on students in grades 6-8 who did not pass their state English Language Arts test and who have demonstrated difficulties in reading comprehension. They will compare the efficacy of the intervention as implemented in small groups by a teacher, individual implementation of the intervention through computer software with project interventionist supervision, and the school’s business-as-usual classes. The study aims to determine the effect of each version of the intervention on student inference-making abilities and reading comprehension, as well as whether various student skills (such as vocabulary, word reading, attention, and anxiety) may moderate the impact of the interventions. The interventions’ cost-effectiveness will also be evaluated.

Focused on more intensive intervention for middle school students with or at risk for reading  disabilities, Mary Beth Calhoon at the University of Miami is testing the efficacy of a 2-year implementation of the Adolescent Multi-Component Intensive Training Program (AMP-IT-UP), which was previously tested after 1 year of implementation through an IES-funded grant. The intervention uses direct, systematic, explicit instruction (in phonological decoding with comprehension, spelling, and fluency) and cognitive strategy instruction (including use of cues and anchors), combined with reciprocal peer-mediated instruction. Dr. Calhoon’s research team is conducting a randomized controlled trial with middle school students with or at risk for reading disabilities who are still reading at the third-grade level or below. They will examine the impact after 2 years of intervention as well as 1 year after intervention has ended to determine its effect on student word recognition, spelling, fluency, and comprehension skills.

We look forward to reporting on the results of these studies as these teams complete their work in the years to come.

The blog was authored by Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), and Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), program officers for NCSER.

Research Roundup: NCES Celebrates Women’s History Month

In observation of Women’s History Month, this blog post presents NCES findings on the learning experiences of female students throughout their education careers as well as the characteristics of female teachers and faculty.

K–12 Education

  • In 2019, a larger percentage of U.S. female 12th graders (51 percent) than male 12th graders (42 percent) reported that they were somewhat or more likely to pursue a career in science. Explore more science assessment data from NAEP.
     
  • In 2017–18, women made up 89 percent of public school teachers at the elementary level, 72 percent at the middle school level, and 60 percent at the high school level. Explore more data about elementary and secondary school teachers by sex.

Postsecondary Education

Resources to Learn More

  • Undergraduate Enrollment (Condition of Education indicator): Learn how undergraduate female enrollment changed between 2009 and 2019.
     
  • Table 318.10 (Digest of Education Statistics): Explore how the number of degrees awarded to female students has changed since academic year 1869–70.
     
  • International Data Explorer (IDE): Learn about the education of women and girls across the world.


By Kyle Argueta, AIR

From Disproportionate Discipline to Thriving Students: An IES Postdoc’s Mission

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. This week, Dr. Courtney Zulauf-McCurdy, an IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training (SMART) Center, shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

 

My interests in child development began early on. I moved frequently for my parents’ work, so I was often seen as an outsider by the other children at the schools I attended. One school in particular had a group of “popular students” who bullied others and were particularly aggressive to peers. Often, teachers and parents would turn a blind eye to this behavior, and I became curious about how parents and educators respond to and shape child behavior.

Understanding Disparities in Early Childhood

I pursued a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago out of a desire to advocate for children in both research and clinical practice. As a graduate student in the Social Emotional Teaching and Learning (SETL) Lab, I worked directly with parents, educators, and young children to understand how the school and home environment shape child behavior. Much of our research aimed to support teachers in improving children’s social-emotional development, but what I learned was that teachers weren’t providing equal opportunities and experiences to all children.

In particular, I became focused on an alarming disparity: disproportionate discipline. Not only are preschoolers being expelled at rates three times higher than students in K-12, but there are large discipline disparities by gender and race. In AY 2013-14, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Black children composed 19% of enrollment but 47% of those expelled. A report citing data from the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau found that children with social emotional difficulties are 14.5 times more likely to be expelled.

During graduate school, I explored the reasons why Black boys are being disproportionately expelled and found that it was at least in part related to teachers’ biased perceptions of parents. Because of this, I became interested in developing evidenced-based interventions for parents and educators to protect children from being expelled.

For my clinical internship, I specialized in integrated behavioral health at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I provided evidenced-based practices to children and families in underserved community settings. Here, I learned about behavioral interventions that improve child behavior, which work best when parents and teachers work together across home and school. However, I noticed that children of color were less likely to receive evidenced-based interventions (such as classroom-based behavioral interventions or parent management training), and even when they do, parents and teachers experience barriers to working together to implement these interventions. As a result, I shifted my focus from designing new interventions to understanding how to improve the implementation of interventions in community settings that serve young children from under-represented backgrounds.

Moving from Intervention Development to Implementation Science

As a second year IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington (UW) SMART Center, I am combining my research interests with implementation science. I am partnering with educators and parents to understand how teacher perceptions of parents and parent engagement is an implementation determinant—that is, a barrier or facilitator. Together, we are learning how to reduce disparities in preschool by improving the implementation of interventions that allow for early, easy, and acceptable access to families who face the highest levels of barriers. 

I have been using stakeholder-engaged processes consisting of focus groups, community advisory boards, and rapid try outs of strategies to ensure equity by engaging the perspectives of families from under-represented minority backgrounds. Such community engagement aims to ensure that our interventions are culturally responsive and unimpeded by bias.

Through my work, I have learned that educators and parents want the best outcomes for their children but face a multitude of barriers that hinder their ability to engage. For example, preschool teachers have limited resources, face stress and burnout, are under-prepared and underpaid, leading to considerable barriers in addressing the mental health needs of young children. Likewise, parents face obstacles such as perceived bias from their child’s school and logistical barriers such as time and childcare.

Moving Forward

I will continue working directly with parents and educators to understand how we can place all young children (and their families) in the best position to thrive. I will continue to use research methods, such as community advisory boards and qualitative methods, that seek to elevate the voices of parents and educators to promote equitable child outcomes. Through continued collaboration with community partners, disseminating my findings to parents, educators, and practitioners and connecting research with culturally responsive early childhood practice and policies, I hope to dismantle disparities in preschool outcomes.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

Integrating Social-Emotional and Literacy Learning in the Primary Grades

Teachers often have the critical and daunting task of developing behavioral and academic skills simultaneously. For students at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD), this can be even more challenging. Researchers Ann Daunic and Nancy Corbett, along with co-PI Stephen Smith and other colleagues at the University of Florida, developed Social-Emotional Learning Foundations (SELF), an intervention  developed and tested for efficacy through IES funding. SELF combines instructional strategies in literacy and social-emotional self-regulation for kindergarten and first grade teachers to provide more in-depth opportunities for at-risk students to develop these skills. Recently, we spoke with the SELF creators to learn more about the needs addressed by the intervention and the early evidence for its efficacy.

What are some challenges facing early elementary students at risk for developing EBD?

Photo of Ann Daunic
Ann Daunic (AD): Children at risk for developing EBD typically have issues with self-regulation, which can lead to a variety of maladaptive behaviors and affect their social-emotional adjustment and their academic outcomes. For example, children with aggressive tendencies are often impulsive, lack appropriate decision-making skills, and may be rejected by peers.

What are some challenges facing teachers of students at risk for EBD in the area of literacy?

Photo of Nancy Corbett

Nancy Corbett (NC): We know that higher levels of behavioral self-regulation are associated with greater literacy and language skills. Children who come to kindergarten with fewer skills, either social or cognitive, may experience the classroom as a threatening place and therefore be less engaged with school at an early age. When children are disengaged at school, important early learning skills, including literacy, are more difficult to attain. Because literacy plays such a fundamental role in school success, it is critical that teachers meet the challenge of keeping children involved and motivated in this area.

How did you develop SELF to address these challenges?

AD: First, we realized that children at early risk for EBD may not benefit sufficiently from universally delivered, or Tier 1, instruction. We designed SELF to extend prior work in social-emotional and academic learning by providing small group, or Tier 2, instruction for at-risk children within the general education classroom.

Embedding social-emotional learning (SEL) within literacy instruction enables teachers to foster self-regulatory skills that are critical not only for social-emotional adjustment, but also for developing literacy. Using dialogic reading (an interactive strategy where adults and children have a dialogue around the text they are reading to enhance children’s literacy and language skills), SELF teachers can promote “emotion discourse” through interactive storybook reading, which occurs frequently in K-1 classrooms. In SELF, the teacher begins by introducing key concepts and vocabulary to the whole class. This is followed by a small group setting in which the teacher provides additional opportunities to engage the children at risk for EBD in conversations about their feelings and choices while developing listening comprehension. Children learn to identify their feelings using selected vocabulary words and they acquire strategies for regulating those feelings and related behaviors.

Why was it important to develop a social-emotional curriculum that could be implemented during literacy instruction?

NC: In addition to the fact that social-emotional growth and academic learning are inextricably connected, there is constant pressure to demonstrate continuous academic growth. As a result, it is challenging for many teachers to find time during the school day to focus on SEL. Therefore, it was not only conceptually, but also practically, sound to integrate an SEL curriculum within an academic subject taught in the primary grades. Since some children need more intensive and explicit instruction, we combined universally delivered and small group lessons to provide children at risk for EBD additional opportunities to strengthen language related to SEL and engage in social problem solving.

What have you found in the efficacy trial of SELF? 

AD: During our trial, we collected data primarily through teacher reports of children’s knowledge and behaviors related to social-emotional competence and managing emotions, as well as some direct assessments of the children’s vocabulary, language, and self-regulation. Our findings showed that compared to at-risk children in the control condition (in which students received their usual instruction and services), children who were taught SELF lessons had more positive outcomes on measures related to self-regulation, SEL vocabulary, SEL competence, and behavior (externalizing and internalizing challenges, social skills, and school adjustment). These findings suggest that SEL curricula embedded within academic areas such as literacy can be effective.

Teacher feedback about SELF’s feasibility has consistently indicated that teachers like the curriculum and think it benefits their students, particularly those who are reluctant to say much in a whole group setting. Children have more opportunities in the small group to make connections from storybook characters’ experiences and feelings to their own, and introverted children are more likely to express their thoughts and emotions. Because these children do not typically receive as much attention as children at risk for externalizing problems, the evidence that SELF was effective for them was particularly noteworthy.

What are the next steps for your research?

AD: Theoretically speaking, the discourse opportunities provided in the small-group lessons are key to making SEL instruction effective for at-risk students. Over the years, however, many teachers using SELF have expressed a desire to teach the entire curriculum in a whole class setting, reasoning that all children can benefit from the instruction. This preference could indicate either a failure to grasp the fundamental role the small-group lessons play in providing opportunities for developing receptive and expressive social-emotional language, or it could be a practical concern with adding Tier 2 SEL instruction to their already demanding schedules. Therefore, future studies might include more formal qualitative inquiry focused on implementation concerns. We also need to examine whether children from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds respond similarly to SELF lessons. Finally, we would like to examine the pathways through which this model works, such as investigating whether SELF improves SEL language development and/or self-regulation, which then leads to the overall positive behavior and academic outcomes we have observed.

Where can interested school personnel learn more about SELF?

NC: Providing access to validated instructional interventions like SELF is of primary importance to us, so we are currently finalizing a website for interested stakeholders to freely access the curriculum after completing one hour of professional development. The website includes a video overview of SELF and orientation to SEL topics, our research papers and conference presentations, and for those who have completed the PD, the instructional materials and strategies used throughout the lessons.

Ann Daunic, PhD, principal investigator for the SELF research project, is an emeritus scholar in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies in the University of Florida’s College of Education.

Nancy Corbett, PhD, co-principal investigator, is a retired faculty member in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies in the University of Florida’s College of Education.

This interview was produced and edited by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University. Jacquelyn Buckley is the program officer for NCSER’s Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Competence portfolio.

How the 2017-2022 Cohort of RELs Supported the Use of Evidence in Education

Three adults discuss a chart that is displayed on a laptop.

This winter is a special season that comes along once every five years for the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) program at IES. It’s a winter when the REL team manages the end of five-year REL contracts and oversees the launch of nine new REL contracts.[i]  During this exciting time, we actively reflect on the successes and lessons of the previous contracts—the 2017-2022 REL cohort—and channel those reflections into our work with the 2022-2027 REL cohort. 

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:

Image of a chart entitled “Responses to REL Partnership Stakeholder Feedback Survey (SFS).” The chart shows that in 2019, 77 percent of 695 respondents reported that they used or were in the process of using the research data they learned through REL partnerships, 19 percent said they were making plans to use the research, and 4 percent said they had no plans to use the research; in 2020, 81 percent of 397 respondents reported that they used or were in the process of using the research data they learned through REL partnerships, 17 percent said they were making plans to use the research, and 2 percent said they had no plans to use the research; and in 2021, 82 percent of 582 respondents reported that they used or were in the process of using the research data they learned through REL partnerships, 15 percent said they were making plans to use the research, and 3 percent said they had no plans to use the research.

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.