NCEE Blog

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

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 

How can we work together to promote achievement for all students?

Matthew Soldner, Commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, delivered the remarks below at Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest’s February 27, 2019 Governing Board Meeting in Chicago, Illinois. The remarks have been edited for clarity and to remove references to specific attendees or projects.

Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to share a few thoughts this evening about the Institute of Education Sciences’ vision for the REL program. I will promise to keep them brief, because I know you want to hear from REL Midwest about the work they have planned for the upcoming year, and I know they want to hear from you about the planned work and how it can be designed to meet your needs and the needs of your stakeholders.

As you meet over the course of the next day, I’d ask that you keep one question in mind throughout: how can our work together, across the various partnerships that are represented in this room, work to promote achievement for all students. I want to spend a moment on a few of those words.

First, achievement. When I talk about achievement, I’m not referring to only test scores or grades. I’m talking about measures and indicators of development and success from early childhood through adulthood, including outcomes in early childhood education, early and middle grades, high school, and college and university. This also must include indicators of success as learners move to and through the workforce.

Second, when I say all students – or, perhaps more precisely, all learners – I mean it in the most inclusive terms. We are deeply committed to ensuring each student, each learner, is well-served by our systems of education – from pre-Kindergarten to adult education, and all levels in-between.  

So what must we, as a REL program, do to work toward that goal? I think most of us would agree that nothing changes for students if adults don’t begin to do things differently and, hopefully, better.

That means our work must be focused on action. The kind of action you tell us is most needed in your states, your districts, and your communities.

Some of you are probably saying: “But I thought this work was about RESEARCH? Doesn’t the ‘L’ in ‘REL’ imply that we are out to experiment, test, and discover? Not ACTION?”

The answer is, of course, yes: Research is core to the distinctiveness of the REL program. Research, and a reliance on evidence in classroom practice and policymaking is at the foundation of everything that we do. And yes, in all of our work, we hope to inspire among our partners a desire and capacity to better use data and evidence.

But it cannot end there. The research that we do together must be in service of the action – of the change – around which you have invited us into your work. It must be part of a larger, coherent effort to improve the achievement of all students. Research is a means to an end, but it is not the end this program is meant to achieve.

I would offer one word of caution. This is not just, or even mostly, about improving dissemination. It isn’t about a better tweet, a better infographic, or a better video. We cannot be in the business of just putting research in peoples’ hands and expecting change.

Instead, this is about being in active partnership with you. And putting that relationship to work so that what we know and what we are learning can support the policy, program, and practice goals you have set to support all students.

I do not believe this is a radical departure from how this community thinks about its work. But it may call us to do our work with a different kind of intentionality.

So my ask of you, my charge to you, is that as Governing Board members and stakeholders you consistently challenge us to leverage the research, evaluation, and technical assistance skills of the REL staff in this room in ways that make a real difference in the lives of the learners you serve. Thank you being good partners with us on this journey. As always, please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have thoughts about how we might do our work better.

Sharing strategies to increase research-based educational practices

By Cora Goldston, REL Midwest

Highlighted Resources

How can states, districts, and schools identify effective practices to address challenges and achieve their goals? Education research can point the way, but sometimes finding and accessing relevant research can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. And even when practitioners can find research, it can be difficult to determine a study’s rigor and the strength of research evidence supporting interventions.

Equipping practitioners to use research evidence

Through the Midwest Alliance to Improve Knowledge Utilization (MAIKU), the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is partnering with practitioners to help states, districts, and schools use research to inform practice. The goal is to make it easier for educators to find research relevant to their priorities, assess the level of evidence that supports potential practices, and implement those practices that are based on strong evidence.

REL Midwest and MAIKU are supporting the use of research in education practice in several ways. For example, REL Midwest provided coaching sessions for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) on understanding the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tiers of evidence. In addition, REL Midwest created a crosswalk that shows how the ESSA evidence tiers align with ratings from research clearinghouses, such as the What Works Clearinghouse. In turn, ODE is using this information to help Ohio districts that are applying for Striving Readers grants. To receive the grants, districts must demonstrate that they plan to use research-based practices to improve student literacy. As a result of REL Midwest’s support, ODE has strengthened its capacity to help districts determine the level of evidence supporting certain practices and, thus, to submit stronger grant applications.

REL Midwest is providing similar support across the region. In Michigan, we are conducting coaching sessions for the state Department of Education to help agency leadership choose priorities from the state’s Top 10 in 10 plan, identify research-based practices that support those priorities, and collaborate to implement new state-level practices. In Wisconsin, REL Midwest hosted a training series for the Department of Public Instruction to increase the agency’s capacity to collect, analyze, and use data to adjust state-level policies and practices. And in Illinois, REL Midwest is holding a training series for the State Board of Education on research methods, data collection, and data analysis and how to use the findings to inform agency practices.

June webinar on increasing evidence use

MAIKU is also working with researchers to support evidence use in education practice. On June 19, 2018, REL Midwest and MAIKU hosted a webinar to discuss how researchers can share evidence with practitioners in useful and accessible ways.

The webinar featured a presentation by Alan J. Daly, Ph.D., of the University of California at San Diego, and Kara Finnigan, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester. Dr. Daly and Dr. Finnigan discussed how information-sharing networks are structured among school and district staff and the challenges for practitioners in accessing and using research-based practices.   

Building on this context, Dr. Daly and Dr. Finnigan shared insights about the most effective ways to maximize the reach of research. One of their key findings is that the pattern of people’s social ties makes a difference for sharing and using research-based practices. Finnigan and Daly noted that the set of relationships we have can increase access to research evidence if the right ties are present but can constrain access to resources when those ties are not present. The quality of relationships also matters; high levels of trust are essential for more in-depth exchanges of information. The takeaway: fostering both the quantity and quality of social relationships is important for sharing research evidence.  

During the webinar, Jaime Singer, senior technical assistance consultant at REL Midwest, also shared actionable strategies that researchers can use to support evidence use in practice, including training and coaching sessions, checklists, blog posts, and clearinghouses of effective practices.

The webinar included a panel discussion about REL Midwest’s ESSA evidence tiers coaching sessions and crosswalk for ODE. REL Midwest researcher Lyzz Davis, Ph.D., provided a researcher perspective on developing resources to meet ODE’s needs. Heather Boughton, Ph.D., and Melissa Weber-Mayrer, Ph.D., at ODE provided practitioner perspectives on how REL Midwest’s work has strengthened the agency’s capacity to help districts find and use evidence-based interventions.

Responding to the Needs of the Field

By Chris Boccanfuso Education Research Analyst, NCEE

One of the most commonly asked questions about the Regional Educational Laboratory, or REL, program is how we choose the applied research and evaluation studies, analytic technical assistance, and dissemination activities we provide for free to stakeholders every year. The answer is simple – we don’t!

Instead, the REL staff at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and our contractors who run the nation’s ten regional labs listen to the voices of teachers, administrators, policymakers, and students to identify and address high-leverage problems of practice and build the capacity of stakeholders. In other words, these groups determine where the RELs should use their resources to make the largest, most lasting impact possible on practice, policy and, ultimately, student achievement.

How do the RELs do this? Through a variety of activities we collectively refer to as needs sensing. The following are a few examples of how the RELs engage in needs sensing:

Research Alliances: Research Alliances are a type of researcher–practitioner partnership where a group of education stakeholders convene around a specific topic of concern to work collaboratively to investigate a problem and build capacity to address it. Alliances can be made up of many types of stakeholders, such as teachers, administrators, researchers and members of community organizations. Alliances can vary in size and scope and address a variety of topics. For instance, alliances have formed to address topics as broad as dropout prevention and as specific as Hispanic students’ STEM performance. The vast majority of the RELs’ work is driven by these research alliances.

While the RELs’ 79 research alliances are incredibly diverse, one thing each alliance has in common is that they collectively develop a research agenda. These agendas can change, as the alliance continually weighs the questions and needs of various groups against the types of services and the resources available to address these needs. Not every need has to be addressed through a multi-year research study. Sometimes, it can be addressed through a workshop, a literature review, or a “Bridge Event”, where national experts on certain topic work with practitioners to provide the information that alliance members need, when they need it. Sometimes, a need is state or district-specific, is related to the impact of a specific program, or covers a topic where the existing research literature is thin. In these cases, a research study may be most appropriate.

Governing Boards: Another way that RELs determine their work is through their Governing Boards.  By law, each REL is required to have a Governing Board that consists of the Chief State School Officers (or their designee) for each state, territory, or freely associated state in the region. The Board also includes carefully selected members who equitably represent each state, as well as a broad array of regional interests, such as educating rural and economically disadvantaged populations. (A 2013 REL Northeast and Islands Governing Board meeting is pictured here.)
 
Governing Boards typically include a mix of people with experience in research, policy and teaching practice. Each Governing Board meets two to three times per year to discuss, direct, advise, and approve each REL project that occurs in that region. The intent is to ensure that the work being done by the REL is timely, high-leverage, equitably distributed across the region, and not redundant with existing efforts.                          

“Ask a REL”: A third way in which the RELs engage in needs sensing is through the Ask a REL service. Ask a REL is a publicly available reference desk service that functions much like a technical reference library. It provides requestors with references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations on research-based education questions. RELs are able to examine trends in the topics of Ask a REL requests to verify needs determined through other methods, as well as identify new topics that may warrant additional attention.   

RELs use many additional ways to explore the needs of their region, including scans of regional education news sites, reviews of recently published research, and Stakeholder Feedback Surveys that are filled out by alliance members and attendees at REL events.

It’s a thorough and ongoing process that RELs are engaging in to address authentic, high-leverage problems of practice in a variety of ways. In the coming months, we will share stories of the many projects that were informed by this needs sensing process. Stay tuned!

 

Regional Educational Laboratories: Connecting Research to Practice

By Joy Lesnick, Acting Commissioner, NCEE

Welcome to the NCEE Blog! 

Joy Lesnick

We look forward to using this space to provide information and insights about the work of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE). A part of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), NCEE’s primary goal is providing practitioners and policymakers with research-based information they can use to make informed decisions. 

We do this in a variety of ways, including large-scale evaluations of education programs and practices supported by federal funds; independent reviews and syntheses of research on what works in education; and a searchable database of research citations and articles (ERIC) and reference searches from National Library of Education. We will explore more of this work in future blogs, but in this post I’d like to talk about an important part of NCEE—the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs).

It’s a timely topic. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a solicitation for organizations seeking to become REL contractors beginning in 2017 (the five-year contracts for the current RELs will conclude at the end of 2016). The REL program is an important part of the IES infrastructure for bridging education research and practice. Through the RELs, IES seeks to ensure that research does not “sit on a shelf” but rather is broadly shared in ways that are relevant and engaging to policymakers and practitioners. The RELs also involve state and district staff in collaborative research projects focused on pressing problems of practice. An important aspect of the RELs’ work is supporting the use of research in education decision making – a charge that the Every Student Succeeds Act has made even more critical.

The RELs and their staff must be able to navigate comfortably between the two worlds of education research and education practice, and understand the norms and requirements of both.  As part of this navigating, RELs focus on: (1) balancing rigor and relevance; (2) differentiating support to stakeholders based on need; (3) providing information in the short term, and developing evidence over the long term; and (4) addressing local issues that can also benefit the nation.

While the RELs are guided by federal legislation, their work reflects – and responds to – the needs of their communities. Each REL has a governing board comprised of state and local education leaders that sets priorities for REL work. Also, nearly all REL work is conducted in collaboration with research alliances, which are ongoing partnerships in which researchers and regional stakeholders work together over time to use research to address an education problem.  

Since the current round of RELs were awarded in 2012, these labs and their partners have conducted meaningful research resulting in published reports and tools, held hundreds of online and in-person seminars and training events that have been attended by practitioners across the country, and produced videos of their work that you can find on the REL Playlist on the IES YouTube site. Currently, the RELs have more than 100 projects in progress. RELs do work in nearly every topic that is crucial to improving education—kindergarten readiness, parent engagement, discipline, STEM education, college and career readiness, teacher preparation and evaluation, and much more.

IES’s vision is that the 2017–2022 RELs will build on and extend the current priorities of high-quality research, genuine partnership, and effective communication, while also tackling high-leverage education problems.  High-leverage problems are those that: (1) if addressed could result in substantial improvements in education outcomes for many students or for key subgroups of students; (2) are priorities for regional policymakers, particularly at the state level; and (3) require research or research-related support to address well. Focusing on high-leverage problems increases the likelihood that REL support ultimately will contribute to improved student outcomes.

Visit the IES REL website to learn more about the 2012-2017 RELs and how you can connect with the REL that serves your region.  Visit the FedBizOpps website for information about the competition for the 2017-2022 RELs.