IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

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 

In Nebraska, a focus on evidence-based reading instruction

Researchers have learned a lot about reading over the last few decades, but these insights don’t always make their way into elementary school classrooms. In Nebraska, a fresh effort to provide teachers with practical resources on reading instruction could help bridge the research-practice divide.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) implemented NebraskaREADS to help “serve the needs of students, educators, and parents along the journey to successful reading.” As part of a broader effort guided by the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act, the initiative emphasizes the importance of high-quality reading instruction and targeted, individualized support for struggling readers.

As part of NebraskaREADS, NDE is developing an online resource inventory of tools and information to support high-quality literacy instruction for all Nebraska students. After reaching out to REL Central for support, experts from both agencies identified the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) as a prime source for evidenced-based information on instructional practices and policies and partnered with REL Central to develop a set of instructional strategies summary documents based on recommendations in eight WWC practice guides.

Each WWC practice guide presents recommendations for educators based on reviews of research by a panel of nationally recognized experts on a particular topic or challenge. NDE’s instructional strategies summary documents align the evidence-based strategies in the practice guides more directly with NebraskaREADS.

REL Central and NDE partners used the WWC practice guides to develop the 35 instructional strategies summary documents, each of which condenses one recommendation from a practice guide. For each recommendation, the instructional strategies summary document provides the associated NebraskaREADS literacy focus, implementation instructions, appropriate grade levels, potential roadblocks and ways to address them, and the strength of supporting evidence.

NDE launched the instructional strategies summary documents in spring 2019, and already educators have found them to be helpful resources. Dee Hoge, executive director of Bennington Public Schools, described the guides as “checkpoints for strong instruction” and noted her district’s plan to use them to adapt materials and provide professional development. Marissa Payzant, English language arts education specialist at NDE and a lead partner in this collaboration, shared that the “districts are excited to incorporate the strategy summaries in a variety of professional learning and other initiatives. They make the information in the practice guides much more accessible, and all the better it’s from a trustworthy source.”

Building on the positive reception and benefits of the instructional strategies summary documents, NDE and REL Central plan to expand the resource inventory into other content areas. Currently, they are working together to develop instructional strategy summaries using the WWC practice guides for math instruction.

by Douglas Van Dine​, Regional Educational Laboratory Central

Taking Discovery to Scale

Along with my NCEE colleagues, I was excited to read the recent Notice Inviting Applications for the next cycle of Comprehensive Centers, administered by the Department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As you can see in the notice, Regional Comprehensive Centers will “provide high-quality intensive capacity-building services to State clients and recipients to identify, implement, and sustain effective evidence-based programs, practices, and interventions that support improved educator and student outcomes,” with a special emphasis on benefitting disadvantaged students, students from low-income families, and rural populations.

With this focus on supporting implementation, Regional Comprehensive Centers (RCCs) can amplify the work of NCEE’s Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) and What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). Learning from states, districts, and schools to understand their unique needs, and then being able to support high-quality implementation of evidence-based practices that align with those needs, has the potential to dramatically accelerate the process of improving outcomes for students.

RELs and the WWC already collaborate with today’s Comprehensive Centers, of course. But it’s easy to see how stronger and more intentional relationships between them could increase each program’s impact.

True to its name, the REL program has worked with educators to design and evaluate innovative practices – or identify, implement, and refine existing ones – to meet regional and local needs for more than 50 years. And since its inception in 2002, the WWC has systematically identified and synthesized high-quality evidence about the effectiveness of education programs, policies, and practices so that educators and other instructional leaders can put that information to use improving outcomes for students. But with more than 3.6 million teachers spread across more than 132,000 public and private schools nation-wide, making sure discoveries from education science are implemented at scale and with fidelity is no small feat. RCCs are welcome partners in that work.

This figure describes how RELs, the What Works Clearinghouse, and Regional Comprehensive Centers could most effectively collaborate across a continuum from discovery to scale.

RELs, the WWC, and Comprehensive Centers can play critical, complementary roles in taking discovery to scale (see Figure). With their analysis, design, and evaluation expertise, RELs – in partnership with states and districts, postsecondary institutions, and other stakeholders – can begin the process by designing and rigorously evaluating best practices that meet local or regional needs. (Or, as I will discuss in future messages, by developing and rigorously testing materials that support adoption of evidence-based practices.) The WWC follows, vetting causal impact studies, synthesizing their findings to better understand the strength of evidence that supports a practice and identifying its likely impact. Partners in the Comprehensive Centers can then “pick-up” those WWC-vetted practices, aligning them to needs of State and other clients, and supporting and sustaining implementation at scale. Finally, lessons learned from RCCs’ implementation efforts about what worked – and what didn’t – can be fed back to RELs, refining the practice and fueling the next cycle of discovery.

Those that follow the REL-WWC-RCC process know that what I’ve just described isn’t quite how these programs operate today. Sometimes, out of necessity, roles are more “fluid” and efforts are somewhat less well-aligned. The approach of “taking discovery to scale” depicted above provides one way of thinking about how each program can play a unique, but interdependent, role with the other two.

I have every confidence this is possible. After all, the North star of each program is the same: improving outcomes for students. And that means we have a unique opportunity. One we’d be remiss not to seize.

 

Matthew Soldner
Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
Institute of Education Sciences
U.S. Department of Education

 

As always, your feedback is welcome. You can email the Commissioner at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.