NCEE Blog

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

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

 

“The How” of “What Works:” The Importance of Core Components in Education Research

Twenty-some odd years ago as a college junior, I screamed in horror watching a friend open a running dishwasher. She wanted to slip in a lightly used fork. I jumped to stop her, yelling “don’t open it, can’t you tell it’s full of water?” She paused briefly, turning to look at me with a “have you lost your mind” grimace, and yanked open the door.

Much to my surprise, nothing happened. A puff of steam. An errant drip, perhaps? But no cascade of soapy water. She slid the fork into the basket, closed the door, and hit a button. The machine started back up with a gurgle, and the kitchen floor was none the wetter.

Until that point in my life, I had no idea how a dishwasher worked. I had been around a dishwasher, but the house I lived in growing up didn’t have one. To me, washing the dishes meant filling the sink with soapy water, something akin to a washer in a laundry. I assumed dishwashers worked on the same principle, using gallons of water to slosh the dishes clean. Who knew?

Lest you think me completely inept, a counterpoint. My first car was a 1979 Ford Mustang. And I quickly learned how that very used car worked when the Mustang’s automatic choke conked out. As it happens, although a choke is necessary to start and run a gasoline engine, that it be “automatic” is not. My father Rube Goldberg-ed up a manual choke in about 15 minutes rather than paying to have it fixed.

My 14-year-old self learned how to tweak that choke “just so” so that I could get to school each morning. First, pull the choke all the way out to start the car, adjusting the fuel-air mixture ever so slightly. Then gingerly slide it back in, micron by micron, as the car warms up and you hit the road. A car doesn’t actually run on liquid gasoline, you see. Cars run on fuel vapor. And before the advent of fuel injection, fuel vapor was courtesy your carburetor and its choke. Not a soul alive who didn’t know how a manual choke worked could have started that car.

You would be forgiven if, by now, you were wondering where I am going with all of this and how it relates to the evaluation of education interventions. To that end, I offer three thoughts for your consideration:

  1. Knowing that something works is different from knowing how something works.

 

  1. Knowing how something works is necessary to put that something to its best use.

 

  1. Most education research ignores the how of interventions, dramatically diminishing the usefulness of research to practitioners.

My first argument—that there is a distinction between knowing what works and how something works—is straightforward. Since it began, the What Works Clearinghouse™ has focused on identifying “what works” for educators and other stakeholders, mounting a full-court press on behalf of internal validity. Taken together, Version 4.1 of the WWC Standards and Procedures Handbooks total some 192 pages. As a result, we have substantially greater confidence today than we did a decade ago that when an intervention developer or researcher reports that something worked for a particular group of students, we know that it actually did.

In contrast, WWC standards do not, and as far as I can tell have not ever, addressed the how of an intervention. By “the how” of an intervention, I’m referring to the parts of it that must be working, sometimes “just so,” if its efficacy claims are to be realized. For a dishwasher, it is something like: “a motor turns a wash arm, which sprays dishes with soapy water.” (It is not, as I had thought, “the dishwasher fills with soapy water that washes the mac and cheese down the drain.”) In the case of my Mustang, it was: “the choke controls the amount of air that mixes with fuel from the throttle, before heading to the cylinders.”

If you have been following the evolution of IES’ Standards for Excellence in Education Research, or SEER, and its principles, you recognize “the how” as core components. Most interventions consist of multiple core components that are—and perhaps must—be arrayed in a certain manner if the whole of the thing is to “work.” Depicted visually, core components and their relationships to one another and to the outcomes they are meant to affect form something between a logic model (often too simplistic) and a theory of change (often too complex).

(A word of caution: knowing how somethings works is also different from knowing why something works. I have been known to ask at work about “what’s in the arrows” that connect various boxes in a logic model. The why lives in those arrows. In the social sciences, those arrows are where theory resides.)  

My second argument is that knowing how something works matters, at least if you want to use it as effectively as possible. This isn’t quite as axiomatic as the distinction between “it works” and “how it works,” I realize.

This morning, when starting my car, I didn’t have to think about the complex series of events leading up to me pulling out of the driveway. Key turn, foot down, car go. But when the key turns and the car doesn’t go, then knowing something about how the parts of a car are meant to work together is very, very helpful. Conveniently, most things in our lives, if they work at all, simply do.  

Inconveniently, we don’t have that same confidence when it comes to things in education. There are currently 10,677 individual studies in the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) database. Of those, only about 11 percent meet the WWC’s internal validity standards. Among them, only 445 have at least one statistically significant positive finding. Because the WWC doesn’t consider results from studies that don’t have strong internal validity, it isn’t quite as simple as saying “only about 4 percent of things work in education.” Instead, we’re left with “89 percent of things aren’t tested rigorously enough to have confidence about whether they work, and when tested rigorously, only about 38 percent do.” Between the “file drawer” problem that plagues research generally and our own review of the results from IES efficacy trials, we have reason to believe the true efficacy rate of “what works” in education is much lower.

Many things cause an intervention to fail. Some interventions are simply wrong-headed. Some interventions do work, but for only some students. And other interventions would work, if only they were implemented well.

Knowing an intervention’s core components and the relationships among them would, I submit, be helpful in at least that third case. If you don’t know that a dishwasher’s wash arm spins, the large skillet on the bottom rack with its handle jutting to the sky might not strike you as the proximate cause of dirty glasses on the top rack. If you don’t know that a core component of multi-tiered systems of support is progress monitoring, you might not connect the dots between a decision to cut back on periodic student assessments and suboptimal student outcomes.

My third and final argument, that most education research ignores the how of interventions, is based in at least some empiricism. The argument itself is a bit of a journey. One that starts with a caveat, wends its way to dismay, and ends in disappointment.

Here’s the caveat: My take on the relative lack of how in most education research comes from my recent experience trying to surface “what works” in remote learning. This specific segment of education research may well be an outlier. But I somehow doubt it.

Why dismay? Well, as regular readers might recall, in late March I announced plans to support a rapid evidence synthesis on effective practices in remote learning. It seemed simple enough: crowd-source research relevant to the task, conduct WWC reviews of the highest-quality submissions, and then make those reviews available to meta-analysts and other researchers to surface generalizable principles that could be useful to educators and families.

My stated goal had been to release study reviews on June 1. That date has passed, and the focus of this post is not “New WWC Reviews of Remote Learning Released.” As such, you may have gathered something about my plan has gone awry. You would be right.

Simply, things are taking longer than hoped. It is not for lack of effort. Our teams identified more than 930 studies, screened more than 700 of those studies, and surfaced 250 randomized trials or quasi-experiments. We have prioritized 35 of this last group for review. (For those of you who are thinking some version of “wow, it seems like it might be a waste to not look at 96 percent of the studies that were originally located,” I have some thoughts about that. We’ll have to save that discussion, though, for another blog.)

Our best guess for when those reviews will be widely available is now August 15. Why things are taking as long as they are is, as they say, “complicated.” The June 1 date was unlikely from the start, dependent as it was upon a series of best-case situations in times that are anything but. And at least some of the delay is driven by our emphasis on rigor and steps we take to ensure the quality of our work, something we would not short-change in any event.  

Not giving in to my dismay, however, I dug in to the 930 studies in our remote learning database to see what I might be able to learn in the meantime. I found that 22 of those studies had already been reviewed by the WWC. “Good news,” I said to myself. “There are lessons to be learned among them, I’m sure.”

And indeed, there was a lesson to be learned—just not the one I was looking for. After reviewing the lot, there was virtually no actionable evidence to be found. That’s not entirely fair. One of the 22 records was a duplicate, two were not relevant, two were not locatable, and one was behind a paywall that even my federal government IP address couldn’t get behind. Because fifteen of the sixteen remaining studies reviewed name-brand products, there was one action I could take in most cases: buy the product the researcher had evaluated.

I went through each article, this time making an imperfect determination about whether the researcher described the intervention’s core components and, if so, arrayed them in a logic model. My codes for core components included one “yes,” two “bordering on yes,” six “yes-ish,” one “not really,” and six “no.” Not surprisingly, logic models were uncommon, with two studies earning a “yes” and two more tallied as “yes-ish.” (You can see now why I am not a qualitative researcher.)

In case there’s any doubt, herein lies my disappointment: if an educator had turned to one of these articles to eke out a tip or two about “what works” in remote learning, they would have been, on average, out of luck. If they did luck out and find an article that described the core components of the tested intervention, there was a vanishingly small chance there would be information on how to put those components together to form a whole. As for surfacing generalizable principles for educators and families across multiple studies? Not without some serious effort, I can assure you.

I have never been more convinced of the importance of core components being well-documented in education research than I am today. As they currently stand, the SEER principles for core components ask:

  • Did the researcher document the core components of an intervention, including its essential practices, structural elements, and the contexts in which it was implemented and tested?
  • Did the researcher offer a clear description of how the core components of an intervention are hypothesized to affect outcomes?
  • Did the researcher's analysis help us understand which components are most important in achieving impact?

More often than not, the singular answer to the questions above is a resounding “no.” That is to the detriment of consumers of research, no doubt. Educators, or even other researchers, cannot turn to the average journal article or research report and divine enough information about what was actually studied to draw lessons for classroom practice. (There are many reasons for this, of course. I welcome your thoughts on the matter.) More importantly, though, it is to the detriment of the supposed beneficiaries of research: our students. We must do better. If our work isn’t ultimately serving them, who is it serving, really?  

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

Reducing the Burden to Grantees While Increasing the Public’s Access to IES Funded Research

In 2011 the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) adopted the IES Public Access Policy. This policy requires all IES grantees and contractors to submit their final peer-reviewed manuscripts to ERIC. ERIC then makes the work freely available to the public 12 months after publication. Operationally, this has required all grantees and some contractors to submit their work through ERIC’s Online Submission portal. To date, over 1,400 articles have been submitted as a result of this policy.

As part of an effort to minimize burden for our grantees and contractors, ERIC has negotiated agreements with the publishers of over 600 education journals to display publicly funded articles in ERIC 12 months after publication or sooner. If grantees or contractors publish their work in a participating journal, the journal will submit the full text to ERIC on behalf of the grantee. The grantee will not need to submit their work to the ERIC Online Submission portal. This is the same process currently implemented for work published by IES.

To ensure that their work is included, grantees and contractors are responsible for:

  • Including their grant or contract number(s) in the acknowledgements section of the published article.
  • Confirming that the journal title, publisher, and year matches ERIC’s list of participating journals.
  • Informing their publishers that they are subject to the IES Publication Policy when their manuscript is submitted.

This policy takes effect starting for work published after January 1, 2020. Grantees who published work prior to 2020 will still need to submit their work through ERIC’s Online Submission portal. Similarly, grantees publishing in journals not participating in this program will need to submit their work through the Online Submission portal. If an article was accepted by a journal that was participating in this program, but then the journal moved to a publisher that is not participating, the grantee will have to submit the article to ERIC using the ERIC Online Submission portal

ERIC is working to expand the list of journals who agree to display the full text of grantee articles. ERIC will update the list of participating journals multiple times a year, as new publishers sign agreements to participate in this program or journals move to a non-participating publisher. Publishers interested in participating should email ERICRequests@ed.gov for more information.

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

An Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19: What We’re Learning

Several weeks ago, I announced the What Works Clearinghouse’s™ first ever rapid evidence synthesis project: a quick look at “what works” in distance education. I asked families and educators to send us their questions about how to adapt to learning at home, from early childhood to adult basic education. I posed a different challenge to researchers and technologists, asking them to nominate high-quality studies of distance and on-line learning that could begin to answer those questions.

Between public nominations and our own databases, we’ve now surfaced more than 900 studies. I was happy to see the full-text of about 300 studies were already available in ERIC, our own bibliographic database—and that many submitters whose work isn’t yet found there pledged to submit to ERIC, making sure it will be freely available to the public in the future. I was a little less happy to learn that only a few dozen of those 900 had already been reviewed by the WWC. This could mean either that (1) there is not a lot of rigorous research on distance learning, or (2) rigorous research exists, but we are systematically missing it. The truth is probably “both-and,” not “either-or.” Rigorous research exists, but more is needed … and the WWC needs to be more planful in capturing it.

The next step for the WWC team is to screen nominated studies to see which are likely to meet our evidence standards. As I’ve said elsewhere, we’ll be lucky if a small fraction—maybe 50—do. Full WWC reviews of the most actionable studies among them will be posted to the WWC website by June 1st, and at that time it is my hope that meta-analysts and technical assistance providers from across the country pitch in to create the products teachers and families desperately need. (Are you a researcher or content producer who wants to join that effort? If so, email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.)

Whether this approach actually works is an open question. Will it reduce the time it takes to create products that are both useful and used? All told, our time on the effort will amount to about two months. I had begun this process hoping for something even quicker. My early thinking was that IES would only put out a call for studies, leaving study reviews and product development to individual research teams. My team was convinced, however, that the value of a full WWC review for studies outweighed the potential benefit of quicker products. They were, of course, correct: IES’ comparative advantage stems from our commitment to quality and rigor.

I am willing to stipulate that these are unusual times: the WWC’s evidence synthesis infrastructure hasn’t typically needed to turn on a dime, and I hope that continues to be the case. That said, there may be lessons to be learned from this moment, about both how the WWC does its own work and how it supports the work of the field. To that end, I’d offer a few thoughts.

The WWC could support partners in research and content creation who can act nimbly, maintaining pressure for rigorous work.

Educators have questions that span every facet of their work, every subject, and every age band. And there’s a lot of education research out there, from complex, multi-site RCTs to small, qualitative case studies. The WWC doesn’t have the capacity to either answer every question that deserves answering or synthesize every study we’re interested in synthesizing. (Not to mention the many types of studies we don’t have good methods for synthesizing today.)

This suggests to me there is a potential market for researchers and technical assistance providers who can quickly identify high-quality evidence, accurately synthesize it, and create educator-facing materials that can make a difference in classroom practice. Some folks have begun to fill the gap, including both familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones. Opportunities for collaboration abound, and partners like these can be sources of inspiration and innovation for one another and for the WWC. Where there are gaps in our understanding of how to do this work well that can be filled through systematic inquiry, IES can offer financial support via our Statistical and Research Methodology in Education grant program.   

The WWC could consider adding new products to its mix, including rigorous rapid evidence syntheses.

Anyone who has visited us at whatworks.ed.gov recently knows the WWC offers two types of syntheses: Intervention Reports and Practice Guides. Neither are meant to be quick-turnaround products.

As their name implies, Intervention Reports are systematic reviews of a single, typically brand-name, intervention. They are fairly short, no longer than 15 pages. And they don’t take too long to produce, since they’re focused on a single product. Despite having done nearly 600 of them, we often hear we haven’t reviewed the specific product a stakeholder reports needing information on. Similarly, we often hear from stakeholders that they aren’t in a position to buy a product. Instead, they’re looking for the “secret sauce” they could use in their state, district, building, or classroom.

Practice Guides are our effort to identify generalizable practices across programs and products that can make a difference in student outcomes. Educators download our most popular Guides tens of thousands of times a year, and they are easily the best thing we create. But it is fair to say they are labors of love. Each Guide is the product of the hard work of researchers, practitioners, and other subject matter experts over about 18 months.  

Something seems to be missing from our product mix. What could the WWC produce that is as useful as a Practice Guide but as lean as an Intervention Report? 

Our very wise colleagues at the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation have a model that is potentially promising: Rapid Evidence Assessments based on pre-existing meta-analyses. I am particularly excited about their work because—despite not coordinating our efforts—they are also focusing on Distance Learning and released a rapid assessment on the topic on April 22nd. There are plusses and minuses to their approach, and they do not share our requirement for rigorous peer review. But there is certainly something to be learned from how they do their work.

The WWC could expand its “what works” remit to include “what’s innovative,” adding forward-looking horizon scanning to here-and-now (and sometimes yesterday) meta-analysis.

Meta-analyses play a critical role in efforts to bring evidence to persistent problems of practice, helping to sort through multiple, sometimes conflicting studies to yield a robust estimate of whether an intervention works. The inputs to any meta-analysis are what is already known—or at least what has already been published—about programs, practices, and policies. They are therefore backward-looking by design. Given how slowly most things change in education, that is typically fine.

But what help is meta-analysis when a problem is novel, or when the best solution isn’t a well-studied intervention but instead a new innovation? In these cases, practitioners are craving evidence before it has been synthesized and, sometimes, before it has even been generated. Present experience demonstrates that any of us can be made to grasp for anything that even smacks of evidence, if the circumstances are precarious enough. The challenge to an organization like the WWC, which relies on traditional conceptions of rigorous evidence of efficacy and effectiveness, is a serious one.

How might the WWC become aware of potentially promising solutions to today’s problems before much if anything is known about their efficacy, and how might we surface those problems that are nascent today but could explode across the landscape tomorrow? 

One model I’m intensely interested in is the Health Care Horizon Scanning System at PCORI. In their words, it “provides a systematic process to identify healthcare interventions that have a high potential to alter the standard of care.” Adapted to the WWC use case, this sort of system would alert us to novel solutions: practices that merited monitoring and might cause us to build and/or share early evidence broadly to relevant stakeholders. This same approach could surface innovations designed to solve novel problems that weren’t already the subject of multiple research efforts and well-represented in the literature. We’d be ahead of—or at least tracking alongside—the curve, not behind.  

Wrapping Up

The WWC’s current Rapid Evidence Synthesis focused on distance learning is an experiment of sorts. It represents a new way of interacting with our key stakeholders, a new way to gather evidence, and a new way to see our reviews synthesized into products that can improve practice. To the extent that it has pushed us to try new models and has identified hundreds of “new” (or “new to us”) studies, it is already a success. Of course, we still hope for more.

As I hope you can see from this blog, it has also spurred us to consider other ways we can further strengthen an already strong program. I welcome your thoughts and feedback – just email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

New Remote Learning Resources from the REL Program

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 related to the pandemic. See below for a roundup of upcoming REL events and recently published resources on this topic.

 

Upcoming Webinars

Friday, April 24: Refining Your Distance Learning Strategies Using a Data-Driven Approach: The Evidence to Insights Coach: REL Mid-Atlantic will discuss a free tool that districts and schools can use to test and identify—in real time—which online learning approaches work best for their own students. The webinar will discuss what you’ll need to make the tool work for you and how you can be strategic about using existing data.
Audience: State leaders, district leaders, school boards, school leaders

Wednesday, April 29: Strategies for Districts to Support Self-Care for Educators During the COVID-19 Pandemic: REL West, the Region 15 Comprehensive Center, and the National Center to Improve Social & Emotional Learning and School Safety, will offer practical information and guidance backed by research to help school staff cope with the stresses of school closures, service provision, and quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Audience: District leaders

New Resources

How can Districts Promote a Safe and Secure Digital Learning Environment?
FAQ | REL West
Audience: District leaders, school leaders, teachers

Research-Based Resources, Considerations, and Strategies for Remote Learning
Webinar recording | REL Midwest
Audience: School leaders, instructional coaches, teachers

Resources for Schools and Districts Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis
Topics covered on this page include providing high-quality instruction to English learners in an online environment, engaging families to support student learning, alternative approaches to graduation ceremonies, and more.
FAQs | REL Northeast & Islands
Audience: District leaders, school leaders, teachers

Strategies to Support Learning Along a Continuum of Internet Access [PDF]
Fact sheet | REL Central
Audience: District leaders, school leaders

Supporting Your Child’s Reading at Home: Kindergarten and First Grade
Videos and activities | REL Southeast
Audience: Families, caregivers

Using Transparency to Create Accountability When School Buildings Are Closed and Tests Are Cancelled
Blog | REL Mid-Atlantic
Audience: District leaders, school leaders

Seeking Your Help in Learning More About What Works in Distance Education: A Rapid Evidence Synthesis

Note: NCEE will continue to accept study nominations after the April 3rd deadline, adding them on a regular basis to our growing bibliography found here. Studies received before the deadline will be considered for the June 1 data release. NCEE will use studies received after the deadline to inform our prioritization of studies for review. Awareness of these studies will also allow NCEE to consider them for future activities related to distance and/or online education and remote learning.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, we know that families and educators are scrambling for high-quality information about what works in distance education—a term we use here to include both online learning as well as opportunities for students to use technology or other resources to learn while not physically at school.

Leaders in the education technology ecosystem have already begun to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by creating websites like techforlearners.org, which as of today lists more than 400 online learning products, resources, and services. But too little information is widely available about what works in distance education to improve student outcomes.

If ever there is a time for citizen science, it is now. Starting today, the What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC) at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is announcing its first-ever cooperative rapid evidence synthesis.

Here is what we have in mind:

  • Between now and April 3rd, we are asking families and educators to share with us questions they have about effective distance education practices and products. We are particularly interested in questions about practices that seem especially relevant today, in which educators are called to adapt their instruction to online formats or send learning materials home to students, and families, not all of whom have internet access, seek to combine available technology with other resources to create a coherent learning experience for their students. Early education, elementary, postsecondary, and adult basic education practices and products are welcome. Submit all nominations to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov.
  • During that same time, we are asking that members of the public, including researchers and technologists, nominate any rigorous research they are aware of or have conducted that evaluates the effectiveness of specific distance education practices or products on student outcomes. As above,  education, elementary, postsecondary, and adult basic education practices and products are welcome.
    • Submit all nominations to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov. Nominations should include links to publicly available versions of studies wherever possible.
    • Study authors are strongly encouraged to nominate studies as described above and simultaneously submit them to ED’s online repository of education research, ERIC. Learn more about the ERIC submission process here.
    • We will post a link to a list of studies on this page and update it on a regular basis.
       
  • By June 1, certified WWC reviewers will have prioritized and screened as many nominated studies as resources allow. Based on the responses received from families, educators, researchers, and technologists, we may narrow the focus of our review; however, nominations will be posted to our website, even those we do not review. Reviews will be entered in the WWC’s Review of Individual Studies Database, which can be downloaded as a flat file.
     
  • After June 1, individual meta-analysts, research teams, or others can download screened studies from the WWC and begin their meta-analytic work. As researchers complete their syntheses, they should submit them through the ERIC online submission system and alert IES. Although we cannot review each analysis or endorse their findings, we will do our best to announce each new review via social media—amplifying your work to educators, families, and other interested stakeholders. Let me know at NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov if this part of the work is of interest to you or your colleagues.

Will you help, joining the WWC’s effort to generate high-quality information about what works in distance education? If so, submit your study today, let me know you or your team are interested in lending your meta-analytic skills to the effort, or just provide feedback on how to make this work more effectively. You can reach me directly at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

Matthew Soldner

Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and
Agency Evaluation Officer, U.S. Department of Education

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.