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 here. I 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.
Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance