IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

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.

Introducing REL 2022

As I write this, my colleagues and I at the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Program are thinking about a single number: 535. No, we’re not concerned about 535 because it represents the number of voting members of Congress, though that would be a good guess. We’re also not thinking about Interstate 535, the “2.78-mile-long Auxiliary Interstate Highway spur of I-35 in the U.S. states of Minnesota and Wisconsin,” though now I’m intensely interested in why it might be that, at least according to Wikipedia, this road is “known locally as the ‘Can of Worms’ interchange.” Instead, my colleagues and I are excited about 535 because it represents the number of days between now and the start of the next cycle of the REL program, affectionately known as REL 2022.

Over a year ago, we began a process that culminates in the awarding of contracts to run each of our regional labs. We are excited to share our preliminary thoughts about the contours of REL 2022 through a Request for Information, or RFI, which we have posted hereI hope you will take time to read the RFI. If you have questions or suggestions after doing so, I hope you are moved to comment. Details on how to offer your feedback can be found in the RFI.

Importantly, we aren’t proposing to radically restructure the REL program. Instead, we are retooling some existing expectations and adding a few new features. Below, I’ve highlighted a few proposed changes that merit special attention.

The purpose of RELs is to improve student outcomes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everything that takes place in REL 2022 should be in service of improving student outcomes. This does not mean that every REL project will, by itself, have a directly observable impact on achievement. But the work of any given REL, in concert with the efforts of those with whom it works, should be trained on a singular focus: bettering the lives of the students through education. There is no other, better, or higher calling.

We accomplish our purpose by working in partnership with stakeholders to support their use of evidence-based practices. Evidence-based practice is “baked in” to the statute that authorizes the REL program, and the importance of building and using evidence in education—and government more generally—is reiterated throughout federal law. (See, for example, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 and the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act of 2018.) However, our emphasis on evidence isn’t rooted in a statutory imperative. Instead, it’s based on a set of core beliefs about our work: that researchers and educators can strengthen education via the rigorous application of the scientific method; that resources, including money and time, are constrained and that efforts with demonstrated effectiveness should be prioritized; and that each and every student deserves the best of “what works” in education, no matter their circumstance.

Nothing changes if nothing changes. In the REL 2022 cycle, we are explicitly asking RELs to think of themselves as “change agents.” This expectation is, I believe, entirely new to the REL Program and is likely to be uncomfortable to some. For that reason, it is helpful to be clear about what we’re expecting and why. Here goes.

I daresay that, no matter how proud they might be of their students and their educators, there is not a state chief, a district superintendent, or building principal who would report they are serving each of their students as well as they wish they could. (If you’re the one who does, please stop reading this blog and call me. I want to share your successes!) Each of those leaders has something they want to do better on behalf of their students and are contemplating, if not actively pursuing, change. It is our hope that RELs can join them in making change, with evidence in hand and research tools at the ready. REL reports, resources, and trainings are not ends unto themselves. They are means to enable the change efforts of local, state, and regional education leaders, working on behalf of students to improve important outcomes.

RELs work in partnership. Education research and technical assistance must be done in partnership with those it is meant to inform. Absent that, it is likely to fail to achieve its goals. At best, potentially positive impacts will be blunted. At worst, harm will be done. There’s a simple solution: collaboration that authentically engages stakeholders in all phases of project design and execution. That isn’t, I realize, as simple to do as it is to write.

As vendors consider the REL 2022 cycle, we ask that they keep two things in mind about what we’ve traditionally called partnerships. First, there are no necessary restrictions on who RELs can partner with when working with stakeholders to achieve stakeholder goals. Does it make sense to partner across levels of education within a state? Do it. Is there a state or national advocacy association that would accelerate a partner’s progress? Engage it. Is there are role for business or industry? Leverage it. A second and closely related concept is that there are no restrictions on partnerships’ functional forms. In general, it does not matter one whit to IES whether you prefer NICs, DBIR, or any other particular form of research partnership. What does? That RELs build projects in partnership—however and with whomever—intentionally, with the goal of supporting partners’ change efforts to achieve the goals they have identified.

We encourage deeper, not broader, work. We believe RELs are more likely to achieve success when they focus partnerships on clearly defined problems of policy or practice in specific geographies. A “Six-State Research Alliance on High School Graduation” can do important and meaningful work—but the process of agreeing on the work to be done and the targets to be met, seeing that work through to completion, and then achieving pre-specified goals is likely to be exceptionally difficult. The “South-Central Kansas Partnership for Kindergarten Readiness” or the “Maricopa County Alliance for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism in High Schools” may be more likely to achieve impact. This is not to say that lessons learned locally should not be shared regionally or nationally, or that groups with common interests might not form “communities of practice” or other networks for the purpose of sharing information or building connection. Rather, we ask RELs be strategic in scoping their highest-intensity work.

We define success as achieving measurable stakeholder goals. Evaluating the impact of research and technical assistance projects is notoriously hard. Often, program managers and the evaluators with whom they work are forced to satisfice, relying upon end-user self-reports of the quality, relevance, and usefulness of a provider’s work. Counts of outputs, such as report downloads and attendees served, are particularly common metrics reported in evaluation studies. Satisfaction is the coin of the realm. Lest I be accused of throwing stones inside my own glass house, let me be clear that we currently use these very measures to characterize the effectiveness of the current REL program.

In REL 2022, it is our intention to shift focus beyond outputs to emphasize outcomes. We will ask RELs to demonstrate, on a regular basis, that they are making progress toward the goals stakeholders set for important student outcomes at the outset of their work, with the acknowledgment that outputs are often critical to achieving a long-term goal and that satisfaction can be an important leading indicator. In 2027, the mark of success won’t be a glowing narrative from a state superintendent or school superintendent about the REL cycle just passed. Instead, it’ll be seeing that the quantifiable goals those leaders set for their work with the REL program were achieved.   

Putting RELs’ capacity for rigorous R&D to work. Finally, there is one manifestly new requirement for RELs as part of the 2022 cycle, one that I am particularly excited about because it brings together the best of two NCEE programs: the RELs and the What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC). As part of the 2022 cycle, each REL will be required to develop—and then evaluate—a comprehensive toolkit based on a WWC Practice Guide, helping educators instantiate evidence-based practices in the classroom. RELs already have experience taking the content from Practice Guides and transforming them into tools for educators. Two examples include Professional Learning Community guides for both foundational reading and English learners. Similarly, North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute has looked to Practice Guides for inspiration to develop massive open online courses (MOOCs), including foundational reading and fractions. None have been evaluated for efficacy. Of course, the development and testing of these new toolkits will follow the expectations set above, including the expectation that strong and inclusive partnerships are at the root of all high-leverage work.

My NCEE colleagues and I are excited about the possibilities that REL 2022 represents. The REL program has a proud history and a strong track record of service to local, state, and regional stakeholders. We hope that, as you review the REL 2022 RFI, you’ll find the next iteration of the program continues in that tradition. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Matthew Soldner

Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

 

New Remote Learning Resources from the REL Program-- Week of 5/1/2020

In response to COVID-19, the 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) have collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic. See below for a roundup of upcoming REL events and recently published resources on this topic. A full list of resources is available on the REL COVID-19 webpage.

Upcoming Webinars

Adapting Instruction for English Learner Students During Distance Learning
Tuesday, May 5 at 3:00–3:45 p.m. CT
REL Southwest
This webinar will provide an overview of promising practices and resources to support remote instruction of English learner (EL) students, followed by a discussion with EL teachers and specialists about how they have leveraged strategies and resources to engage English learner students in remote instruction.

Audience: Teachers, principals, instructional coaches, district superintendents, and state education staff

Teaching Young Learners in a Pandemic: Supporting Children Pre-K–Grade 3 and Their Learning Partners at Home
Wednesday, May 6 at 2:00–3:00 p.m. ET
REL Mid-Atlantic
This webinar will provide research-based information about remotely teaching young children in pre-kindergarten to grade 3, including practical steps that align with research guidance. The webinar will also address ways state and local education agencies can strengthen support for remote learning over the longer term.

Audience: Teachers, principals, and administrators from state education agencies, districts, and schools

Engaging Parents and Students from Diverse Populations in the Context of Distance Learning
Monday, May 11 at 1:00–2:00 p.m. PT
REL West
Effective student and family engagement relies on establishing trusting relationships in which educators, students, and parents see themselves and each other as equal partners. Without opportunities to interact in person, it is now more difficult and more important to build and maintain these strong relationships. This webinar will share lessons from research and practice to help educators engage with students and their families to support continued learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Presenters will discuss strategies in three areas: cultivating a partnership orientation, practicing cultural responsiveness, and establishing two-way communication.

Audience: State, district, and school-level staff

Supporting Postsecondary Transitions During COVID-19
Thursday, May 14 at 3:00–4:00 p.m. ET
REL Appalachia
This virtual chat will discuss logistical and nonacademic supports for keeping students on the path to postsecondary education, such as supporting students and families in completing and making updates to FAFSA applications, understanding financial aid award letters and comparing costs, addressing "summer melt," and providing students with social-emotional supports. Following a brief presentation, a panel of representatives from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), the College Transition Collaborative (CTC), and the Virginia College Advising Corps (VCAC) will answer questions from participants and discuss resources to address current concerns.

Audience: School counselors, school leaders, teachers, and other support providers

New Resources

Guidance for Navigating Remote Learning for English Learner Students
Blog | REL Midwest
Audience: School leaders, teachers

How Can Educators Engage Families in At-Home Learning and Provide Support to Them During These Challenging Times?
FAQ | REL West
Audience: School leaders, teachers, families

Plan and Deliver: Educating Students with Disabilities in Remote Settings
Blog | REL Midwest
Audience: School leaders, teachers

Remembering Social Presence: Higher Education Remote Teaching in COVID-19 Times
Blog | REL Southeast
Audience: University leaders, university instructors

Using Culturally Responsive Practices to Foster Learning During School Closures: Challenges and Opportunities for Equity
Blog | REL Mid-Atlantic
Audience: School leaders, teachers

The Role of RELs in Making WWC Practice Guides Actionable for Educators

Earlier this year, I wrote a short blog about how I envisioned the Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) Program, The What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC), and the Comprehensive Center Program could work together to take discovery to scale. In it, I promised I would follow-up with more thoughts on a specific—and critically important—example: making WWC Practice Guides actionable for educators. I do so below. At the end of this blog, I pose a few questions on which I welcome comments.

The challenge. The single most important resources the WWC produces are its Practice Guides. Practice Guides evaluate the research on a given topic—say, teaching fractions in elementary and middle school—and boil study findings down to a handful of evidence-based practices for educators. Each practice is given a rating to indicate the WWC’s confidence in the underlying evidence, along with tips for how practices can be implemented in the classroom. In many ways, Practice Guides are IES’s most specific and definitive statements about what works to improve education practice and promote student achievement.

Despite their importance, the amount of effort IES has intentionally dedicated to producing high-quality resources that support educators in implementing Practice Guide recommendations has been uneven. (By most measures, it has been on the decline.) Why? Although we have confidence that the materials we have already produced are high-quality, we cannot prove it. Rigor is part of our DNA, and the absence of systematic efficacy tests demonstrating tools’ contribution to improved teacher practice has made us hesitant to dramatically expand IES-branded resources.

To their credit, several organizations have stepped in to address the “last mile problem” between Practice Guides and classroom practice. Some, like RELs, are IES partners. As a result, we have seen a small number of Practice Guides turned in to professional learning community guides, massively on-line open courses, and other teacher-facing resources. Despite these efforts, similar resources have not been developed for the overwhelming majority of Practice Guides. This means many of our Guides and the dozens of recommendations for evidence-based practice they contain are languishing underused on IES’s virtual bookshelf.

An idea. IES should “back” the systematic transformation of Practice Guide recommendations from words on a page to high-quality materials that support teachers’ use of evidence-based practices in their classrooms. And because we should demonstrate our own practice works, those materials should be tested for efficacy.

From my perspective, RELs are well-suited to this task. This work unambiguously aligns with RELs’ purpose, which is to improve student achievement using scientifically-valid research. It also leverages RELs’ unique value proposition among federal technical assistance providers: the capacity to conduct rigorous research and development activities in partnership with state and local educators. If RELs took on a greater role in supporting Practice Guides in the next REL cycle—which runs from 2022 until 2027—what might it look like in practice?

One model involves RELs collaborating with state and/or district partners to design, pilot, and test a coherent set of resources (a “toolkit”) that help educators bring Practice Guide recommendations to life in the classroom. Potential products might include rubrics to audit current policy or practice, videos of high-quality instructional practice, sample classroom materials, or professional learning community facilitation guides, each linked to one or more Practice Guide recommendations.

Long-time followers of the WWC may recognize the design aspect of this work as similar to the defunct Doing What Works Program. The difference? New resources would not only be developed in collaboration with educators, they must be piloted and tested with them as well. It’s simple, really: if we expect educators to use evidence-based practices in the classroom, we need evidence-based tools to help teachers succeed when implementing them.  

Once vetted, materials must get into the hands of educators who need them. It’s here where the value of the REL-Comprehensive Center partnership becomes clear. With a mission of supporting each state education agency in its school improvement efforts, Regional Comprehensive Centers are in the ideal position to bring resources and implementation supports to state and local education leaders that meet their unique needs. Tools that are developed, piloted, and refined by a REL and educators in a single state can then be disseminated by the national network of Comprehensive Centers to meet other states’ needs.

Extensions. It isn’t hard to imagine other activities that the WWC, RELs, and Comprehensive Centers might take on to maximize this model’s potential effectiveness. Most hinge on building effective feedback loops.

Promoting continuous improvement of Practice Guide resources is an obvious example. RELs could and should be in the business of following Comprehensive Centers as they work with states and districts to implement REL-developed Practice Guide supports, looking for ways to maximize their effectiveness. Similarly, Comprehensive Centers and RELs should be regularly communicating with one another about needs-sensing, identifying areas where support for evidence-based practice is lacking and determining which partners to involve in the solution. When there is a growing body of evidence to support educator best practice, the WWC is in the best position to take the lead and develop a new Practice Guide. When that body of evidence does not exist yet—or when even the practices themselves are underdeveloped—the RELs and other parts of IES, such as the National Centers for Education and Special Education Research, should step in.  

Questions. When the WWC releases a new Practice Guide, its work may be done—at least temporarily. The work of its partners to support take-up of a Guide’s recommendations will, however, have just begun. I’d appreciate your thoughts on how to best accomplish that transition, and offer up the following additional questions for your consideration:

  1. Are we thinking about the problem correctly, and in a helpful way? Are there elements of the problem that should be redefined, and would that lead us to different solutions?

 

  1. What parts of the problem does this proposed solution address well, and where are its shortcomings? Are there other solutions—even solutions that don’t seem to fit squarely within today’s model of the REL Program—that might be more effective?

 

  1. If we proceed under a model like that which is described above:

 

  1. What sort of REL partnership models would be most effective in supporting the conceptualization, design, piloting, and testing of teacher-facing “toolkits” aligned to WWC Practice Guides?

 

  1. What research and evaluation activities—and which outcome measures—should be incorporated into this activity to give IES confidence that the resulting “toolkits” are likely to be associated with changed teacher practice and improved student outcomes?

 

  1. How does the 5-year limit on REL contracts affect the feasibility of this idea, including its scope and cost? What could be accomplished in 5 years, and what might take longer to see to completion?

 

  1. How could RELs leverage existing ED-sponsored content, such as that created by Doing What Works, in service of this new effort?

 

If you have thoughts on these questions or other feedback you would like to share, please e-mail me. I can be reached directly at matthew.soldner@ed.gov. Thanks in advance for the consideration!

by Matthew Soldner, NCEE Commissioner 

How can we work together to promote achievement for all students?

Matthew Soldner, Commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, delivered the remarks below at Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest’s February 27, 2019 Governing Board Meeting in Chicago, Illinois. The remarks have been edited for clarity and to remove references to specific attendees or projects.

Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to share a few thoughts this evening about the Institute of Education Sciences’ vision for the REL program. I will promise to keep them brief, because I know you want to hear from REL Midwest about the work they have planned for the upcoming year, and I know they want to hear from you about the planned work and how it can be designed to meet your needs and the needs of your stakeholders.

As you meet over the course of the next day, I’d ask that you keep one question in mind throughout: how can our work together, across the various partnerships that are represented in this room, work to promote achievement for all students. I want to spend a moment on a few of those words.

First, achievement. When I talk about achievement, I’m not referring to only test scores or grades. I’m talking about measures and indicators of development and success from early childhood through adulthood, including outcomes in early childhood education, early and middle grades, high school, and college and university. This also must include indicators of success as learners move to and through the workforce.

Second, when I say all students – or, perhaps more precisely, all learners – I mean it in the most inclusive terms. We are deeply committed to ensuring each student, each learner, is well-served by our systems of education – from pre-Kindergarten to adult education, and all levels in-between.  

So what must we, as a REL program, do to work toward that goal? I think most of us would agree that nothing changes for students if adults don’t begin to do things differently and, hopefully, better.

That means our work must be focused on action. The kind of action you tell us is most needed in your states, your districts, and your communities.

Some of you are probably saying: “But I thought this work was about RESEARCH? Doesn’t the ‘L’ in ‘REL’ imply that we are out to experiment, test, and discover? Not ACTION?”

The answer is, of course, yes: Research is core to the distinctiveness of the REL program. Research, and a reliance on evidence in classroom practice and policymaking is at the foundation of everything that we do. And yes, in all of our work, we hope to inspire among our partners a desire and capacity to better use data and evidence.

But it cannot end there. The research that we do together must be in service of the action – of the change – around which you have invited us into your work. It must be part of a larger, coherent effort to improve the achievement of all students. Research is a means to an end, but it is not the end this program is meant to achieve.

I would offer one word of caution. This is not just, or even mostly, about improving dissemination. It isn’t about a better tweet, a better infographic, or a better video. We cannot be in the business of just putting research in peoples’ hands and expecting change.

Instead, this is about being in active partnership with you. And putting that relationship to work so that what we know and what we are learning can support the policy, program, and practice goals you have set to support all students.

I do not believe this is a radical departure from how this community thinks about its work. But it may call us to do our work with a different kind of intentionality.

So my ask of you, my charge to you, is that as Governing Board members and stakeholders you consistently challenge us to leverage the research, evaluation, and technical assistance skills of the REL staff in this room in ways that make a real difference in the lives of the learners you serve. Thank you being good partners with us on this journey. As always, please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have thoughts about how we might do our work better.