Photo of a workshop REL Appalachia conducted as part of their Strengthening Students’ Preparation for College and Careers in Northeastern Tennessee partnership
The Regional Educational Labs (REL) 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 outcomes 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 IES’s 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.
Data-driven decision-making can be a critical tool to address resource disparities, enhance student success, and promote equitable outcomes. Collecting and analyzing relevant data gives insights into student performance, attendance patterns, disciplinary actions, and more. Rather than relying solely on assumptions or "how we've always done things," educators can use these insights to more effectively tailor policy and practice to better meet the unique needs of their students and communities.
In this third installation of our blog series, we'll explore three case studies showcasing the significance of data-driven decision-making and highlighting the REL Program’s pivotal role in shaping the future of education.
The suspension of standardized testing and accountability measures during the pandemic posed challenges for schools and districts. The interruption in assessments meant there was no baseline data from the 2020-21 school year against which to compare future performance. The sudden shifts between in-person and remote learning, disruptions in curricula, and variations in student participation made it difficult to interpret school performance data and introduced additional instability to school performance indicators. This uncertainty made it more important than ever to ensure that accountability measures were as accurate and reliable as possible to avoid mislabeling schools and educators.
To address these challenges, Pennsylvania's Department of Education (PDE) turned to the expertise of REL Mid-Atlantic. The state recognized the need to reduce measurement error and increase the statistical reliability of performance measures, particularly for subgroups of students, who are critical in identifying schools for targeted support and improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). REL Mid-Atlantic and PDE embarked on a pioneering effort to use Bayesian statistical methods to reduce random error and stabilize performance measures. One focus was the potential instability that small sizes of student subgroups introduced. By minimizing statistical fluctuations, the new approach aims to ensure that schools are not wrongly identified for improvement based on temporary fluctuations in data. This represents a significant advancement in educational accountability and can have far-reaching implications for how states evaluate school performance.
This innovative work is groundbreaking in multiple ways. It addresses an immediate need to ensure that schools are not unfairly labeled as underperforming due to the unpredictability of data during the pandemic. This helps to maintain the credibility of the accountability system. Moreover, this effort extends beyond the immediate crisis. By introducing more accurate and reliable accountability measures, educators can be more confident that performance evaluations are based on solid, consistent data. This, in turn, can lead to greater buy-in and cooperation from educators and stakeholders.
Recently, educators from a consortium of districts in northeastern Tennessee report having experienced a wake-up call when they reflected on their own experience preparing for their own college and careers and compared it with feedback from interviews with current students. Educators learned that students are still facing the same challenges, like not receiving enough guidance on navigating the college application process or finding and applying for scholarships.
Since early 2022, district leaders and staff from the Niswonger Foundation have joined with REL Appalachia in the Strengthening Students Preparation for College and Careers partnership. Together, they reflect on districts’ college and career readiness data and identify improvements to programs and services that better prepare students for life after college. Educators have participated in coaching and technical assistance workshops led by REL Appalachia where they look at quantitative data such as their college enrollment and career technical education (CTE) attainment rates. They have supplemented these numbers with student voices through interviews to better understand the whole picture.
One key takeaway from the analysis of outcome data and student interviews was an increased awareness that everyone in their system has the potential to affect postsecondary trajectories. Partners are now considering what changes they can make to help foster social-emotional preparation for college. For example, one partner stated that these changes could be as simple as having counselors support lunch duty as an opportunity for them to build relationships with students.
With a better understanding of their data on college and career preparation, partners are now asking deeper questions about how they can improve their systems to better support students. In the coming years, REL Appalachia will help the partnership address research questions that will allow them to understand better how their programs and services are strengthening preparation for college and careers.
Despite having a dedicated leadership team that had implemented multi-tiered systems of support to improve literacy, Laurel Public Schools in Montana faced a pressing challenge: only 50 percent of students in grades 3-8 were proficient in reading. For students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, this dropped to 25 percent. Moreover, achievement gaps persisted between White students and students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, ranging from 10 to 35 percentage points. The district’s own data made it evident that a significant intervention was needed to uplift literacy instruction and outcomes in the district.
Laurel Public Schools and REL Northwest collaborated to address the immediate issue while creating a sustainable solution that would transform literacy instruction and student outcomes over the long term. Laurel wanted to take a close and critical eye to their existing multi-tiered systems of support in reading (MTSS-R) and revise their practices to align better with evidence-based methods to effectively tailor reading instruction and assessment practices. Their goal was to ensure that classroom instruction and interventions were appropriately differentiated for all learners, leading to improved reading achievement and reduced achievement disparities.
REL Northwest was pivotal in guiding the district toward using data effectively. In the first year of the project, REL Northwest worked with literacy leadership teams at Laurel to create a rubric that asked Laurel educators to reflect on evidence-based practices within their MTSS-R and describe practices in their district that are aligned with evidence-based practices and practices in need of improvement.
Using the data they collected, the literacy leadership teams identified previously undetected problems of practice. For example, while evidence-based targeted Tier 2 reading interventions and processes were in place, the data suggested that teachers skipped these targeted interventions and moved directly to Tier 3, referring struggling readers for special education. To support long-term improvement, the literacy leadership teams have begun work on action and monitoring plans as part of a “Plan-Do-Study-Act” continuous improvement cycle.
The partnership between Laurel Public Schools and REL Northwest showcases how the partnership between RELs and dedicated state and local leaders can lead to educational transformation. It underscores the power of data as a catalyst for change and highlights the importance of evidence-based practices in driving educational excellence.
Data-driven decision-making can help states and districts deliver on their commitments to equity, evidence-based classroom practice, enhanced student outcomes, and informed policymaking. As these case studies demonstrate, the REL program can support these states and districts in effectively harnessing data to shape a brighter future for our students and the whole of our educational system.
This blog was written by Nicassia Belton (Nicassia.Belton@ed.gov), contracting officer’s representative with the REL Program at NCEE.