by Chris Boccanfuso, REL Program Branch Chief
REL Midwest ENACT Coach, Katie Rich, works with Milwaukee Public Schools’ grade 6 teachers and math coaches during the ENACT Summer Institute.
When educators at Harts PreK-8 and Omar Elementary School in southwestern West Virginia wanted to pioneer a new approach that supported families to engage in their child's math learning, they turned to a partner who had supported their State for more than 50 years: Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia. The resulting program, known in the Appalachian region and elsewhere as community math nights, has now served hundreds of families in West Virginia and Kentucky. And thanks in part to the attention of education writers and the national media, it is poised to help even more.
The Regional Educational Labs program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), supports state education agencies, schools and school districts, and institutions of higher education nationwide in using data and evidence-based practice to improve opportunities and outcome for learners. Operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States of the Pacific region, the REL program brings together the expertise of local communities, top-tier education researchers, and education scientists at the IES National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) to address the most vexing problems of education policy and practice in states and regions—on demand and free of charge.
In this first of a four-part blog series, we highlight four REL research and development projects focused on strengthening math and literacy outcomes. Each demonstrates how RELs have leveraged their distinct capacity for innovation, rigorous research, and authentic partnership to deliver locally-focused and evidence-based supports to the regions, states, and communities they serve.
REL Appalachia: Engaging families for math success in Kentucky and West Virginia
A community math night (CMN) brings together educators, students, family members, and other caring adults to learn about, talk about, and have fun with math. CMNs are designed to reinforce positive math mindsets, help family members participate in their child's learning, and build a sense of community and partnership around a subject that many caregivers find daunting. As part of its support for a series of CMNs across Kentucky and West Virginia, REL Appalachia published materials and a facilitators guide so that any school can host their own event.
True to the program’s emphasis on continuous improvement and innovation, REL Appalachia has begun a new partnership with Logan County (WV) schools that builds from the foundations of the existing CMN approach as a jumping-off point to further accelerate improvement in middle school math achievement using a more comprehensive, year-round set of supports. This new effort involves coaching school-based teams to build their capacity to promote positive math attitudes with students and families, implement research-based instructional practices in the classroom, and employ inclusive family engagement strategies. Materials used to coach school teams will be pulled together into a single resource when the project is complete, but you can begin to use early content now! (See, for example, resources for “Promoting Positive Mathematics Attitudes.”)
REL Midwest: Inspiring Milwaukee students to be lifelong STEM learners
What if some of the principles powering today’s most innovative technologies—such as artificial intelligence—could be taught to elementary students to encourage lifelong learning and success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? The ENgagement and Achievement through Computational Thinking (ENACT) partnership, which includes Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and REL Midwest, is working with teachers to do just that.
Together, MPS and REL Midwest are developing, evaluating, and refining an approach for integrating computational thinking—a set of skills related to problem solving and explaining one’s reasoning—into MPS’ 6th grade math curriculum.
Laura Maly, an MPS mathematics teacher-leader, shared how integrating computational thinking strategies has influenced her work this year. "The [ENACT] computational thinking strategies are very prevalent throughout all strands of mathematics and across all of the grade levels that I work with," she said. "It is easy to bring the CT [computational thinking] strategies to life when working in mathematics classrooms."
REL Southeast: Improving Literacy in Mississippi –The Journey Continues
After many years at the bottom in student performance when compared with other states, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) made a concerted effort to improve the foundational literacy skills of students in kindergarten through grade 3. The results of that effort speak for themselves, with many referring to the state’s transformation as the “Mississippi Miracle.” Now the state is turning its attention to the next leg of its journey: improving the literacy skills of all students, focusing on grade 4 and beyond.
MDE and four school districts in the state–Canton, Columbus, Laurel, and George counties–formed the Mississippi Improving Adolescent Literacy Partnership with REL Southeast to ensure educators can integrate literacy strategies into a wide range of academic courses, from social studies to the sciences. To do so, partners are relying on research conducted elsewhere within NCEE: its What Works Clearinghouse. (Check out the WWC’s Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices and Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively practice guides to learn more!)
After completing a REL Southeast training session, one teacher wrote a message to her principal saying the training gave her tips on how to improve student literacy in her social studies class. “The training helped prepare me to serve my students in the classroom better and has opened my eyes to a broader range of techniques and skills. The training was so informational and engaging that it gave me the confidence level needed to help my students." Two months after the last session, a follow-up survey of participants showed that over half of the teachers reported changing (or being in the process of changing) their approach to supporting based on the training.
Now, REL Southeast is developing tools that will allow districts across Mississippi—and across the country—to replicate these early successes.
REL Southwest: Studying an enhanced approach to literacy instruction for English learner students in New Mexico
Supporting English learner students is a priority in New Mexico and for the state’s Public Education Department (NMPED). Two recent studies from REL Southwest found that significant numbers of both American Indian and Spanish-speaking English learners in New Mexico are struggling to meet grade-level standards and be reclassified as “Fluent English Proficient.” NMPED has developed a strategic plan designed to strengthen equitable educational opportunities and achievement for English learner students. To do so, the plan emphasizes supporting the whole child through evidence-based literacy instruction that is culturally and linguistically responsive (CLRI).
REL Southwest, NMPED, and several regional education cooperatives and school districts in New Mexico formed the Southwest English Learner Literacy (SWELL) partnership to help turn the State’s new plan into a reality. Over the next two school years, partners will enhance, implement, refine, and test Write to Succeed, a research-based professional learning program to help grades 4–8 teachers implement high-quality literacy instruction that includes appropriate supports for English learner students. After working with school and district coaches and NMPED staff to refine and deliver the Write to Succeed program to teachers statewide, REL Southwest will rigorously evaluate the impact of the program on teacher practice and student outcomes. What is learned will help to inform NMPED’s further adoption—or modification—of this program.
These four projects demonstrate RELs working in partnership with educators and policymakers to improve opportunities and outcomes for students in mathematics and literacy. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs about REL work on other important topics such as teacher mentorship and induction, accountability, and trauma-informed supports!
Have questions about anything you read here, or other work within the REL Program? Just email me at email@example.com.