By Chris Boccanfuso Education Research Analyst, NCEE
One of the most commonly asked questions about the Regional Educational Laboratory, or REL, program is how we choose the applied research and evaluation studies, analytic technical assistance, and dissemination activities we provide for free to stakeholders every year. The answer is simple – we don’t!
Instead, the REL staff at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and our contractors who run the nation’s ten regional labs listen to the voices of teachers, administrators, policymakers, and students to identify and address high-leverage problems of practice and build the capacity of stakeholders. In other words, these groups determine where the RELs should use their resources to make the largest, most lasting impact possible on practice, policy and, ultimately, student achievement.
How do the RELs do this? Through a variety of activities we collectively refer to as needs sensing. The following are a few examples of how the RELs engage in needs sensing:
Research Alliances: Research Alliances are a type of researcher–practitioner partnership where a group of education stakeholders convene around a specific topic of concern to work collaboratively to investigate a problem and build capacity to address it. Alliances can be made up of many types of stakeholders, such as teachers, administrators, researchers and members of community organizations. Alliances can vary in size and scope and address a variety of topics. For instance, alliances have formed to address topics as broad as dropout prevention and as specific as Hispanic students’ STEM performance. The vast majority of the RELs’ work is driven by these research alliances.
While the RELs’ 79 research alliances are incredibly diverse, one thing each alliance has in common is that they collectively develop a research agenda. These agendas can change, as the alliance continually weighs the questions and needs of various groups against the types of services and the resources available to address these needs. Not every need has to be addressed through a multi-year research study. Sometimes, it can be addressed through a workshop, a literature review, or a “Bridge Event”, where national experts on certain topic work with practitioners to provide the information that alliance members need, when they need it. Sometimes, a need is state or district-specific, is related to the impact of a specific program, or covers a topic where the existing research literature is thin. In these cases, a research study may be most appropriate.
Governing Boards: Another way that RELs determine their work is through their Governing Boards. By law, each REL is required to have a Governing Board that consists of the Chief State School Officers (or their designee) for each state, territory, or freely associated state in the region. The Board also includes carefully selected members who equitably represent each state, as well as a broad array of regional interests, such as educating rural and economically disadvantaged populations. (A 2013 REL Northeast and Islands Governing Board meeting is pictured here.)
Governing Boards typically include a mix of people with experience in research, policy and teaching practice. Each Governing Board meets two to three times per year to discuss, direct, advise, and approve each REL project that occurs in that region. The intent is to ensure that the work being done by the REL is timely, high-leverage, equitably distributed across the region, and not redundant with existing efforts.
“Ask a REL”: A third way in which the RELs engage in needs sensing is through the Ask a REL service. Ask a REL is a publicly available reference desk service that functions much like a technical reference library. It provides requestors with references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations on research-based education questions. RELs are able to examine trends in the topics of Ask a REL requests to verify needs determined through other methods, as well as identify new topics that may warrant additional attention.
RELs use many additional ways to explore the needs of their region, including scans of regional education news sites, reviews of recently published research, and Stakeholder Feedback Surveys that are filled out by alliance members and attendees at REL events.
It’s a thorough and ongoing process that RELs are engaging in to address authentic, high-leverage problems of practice in a variety of ways. In the coming months, we will share stories of the many projects that were informed by this needs sensing process. Stay tuned!