(A Dear Colleague Letter sent to Chief State School Officers on February 23, 2023.)
As state and local education agencies leaders reflect upon the successes and challenges of the 2022-2023 school year—and the opportunity that summer 2023 presents to further support students’ academic, social, and mental health needs—I am writing today to encourage you to take full advantage of the services offered by your Regional Educational Laboratory (REL).
The REL Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, supports educators and policymakers at the state and local levels in the use of data and evidence-based practices to improve student outcomes. All REL services are provided free of charge and are designed in partnership with state and local partners to meet their specific needs. Each REL is led by a Director with deep expertise in education policy, practice, and research who can help you navigate how best to leverage REL supports to address your state’s most pressing needs. A list of REL Directors, including their contact information, is attached.
Your REL can support a wide range of state and local initiatives. They include:
- Analyzing student progress and outcome data (e.g., achievement, chronic absenteeism, graduation rate, English language proficiency) to understand the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your REL can analyze longitudinal student data provided by the state or district partners to better understand the trajectory of student performance prior to the pandemic, during the pandemic, and today. When disaggregated by student group, school characteristics, or other relevant features, these analyses can support decision-makers in focusing resources, monitoring improvement, and adjusting implementation efforts. RELs Midwest and Mid-Atlantic recently provided similar services for their state and district-level partners.
- Supporting the identification of existing, or the design of new, evidence-based practices to meet students’ academic, social, and mental health needs. Your REL can support state and local efforts to identify practices that prior evidence suggests can promote learning and development. REL Southeast recently published a review on the effectiveness of early literacy interventions across several domains in response to a request from partners regionwide. When high-quality evidence does not exist, or existing practices are not well-aligned to state or local needs, RELs can support efforts to design and pilot research-based innovations.
- Coaching state and local education agency staff on the use of data to improve the ongoing implementation of education policies, programs, and practices. Your REL offers coaching and training services for state and local leaders on data-driven approaches to continuous quality improvement. These services are particularly beneficial when a program is relatively new to a state or district and leaders are focused on timely feedback to ensure an evidence-based practice is well-implemented at scale. REL Southwest recently supported the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s (OSDE) rollout of Oklahoma Excel, a data-driven and job-embedded professional development program for educators in participating districts. A 2-part video series provides background on the program, and the supports REL Southwest provided to OSDE staff who administer the program.
- Evaluating the impact of state or local interventions on important student outcomes. Your REL can support the rigorous evaluation of well-implemented policies, programs, or practices to document those efforts’ impacts on important student outcomes. For example, a 2021 REL Northwest study examined the implementation and impact of full-day kindergarten in Oregon in light of a funding structure shift that incentivized districts to offer the programming. When a rigorous evaluation is not feasible, your REL can advise you on credible, alternative approaches to understanding the outcomes associated with a policy or program.
- Coaching state or local education agency staff on the use of existing REL tools and resources. Through their work with state and local partners, RELs have developed a wide range of actionable resources designed to support the implementation of evidence-based practices. Your REL can coach state and local education agency staff on how to customize and use tools developed elsewhere to meet your needs. Examples include REL Appalachia’s Community Math Night Facilitators’ Toolkit and REL Southeast’s Professional Learning Community on Emergent Literacy.
- Providing expert guidance to senior state or local education agency leaders. Finally, your REL can leverage its network of internal and external experts to offer guidance on data- and evidence-driven approaches to addressing problems of policy and practice. This “Ask-an-Expert” service is available to senior leaders of both state and local education agencies. A recent REL Appalachia “Ask an Expert” response to a Tennessee-based partner shared best practices for administering and using data from Kindergarten readiness screeners.
REL Directors are routinely in contact with senior education agency leadership as part of their on-going work to better understand the kinds of supports that might benefit states in their region. However, if you or senior members of your leadership team have not yet had the opportunity to meet with your REL Director (or have not done so recently), please consider contacting them at your convenience. I am also glad to facilitate that connection at your request.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the critical relationship between your REL and the Regional Comprehensive Center (RCC) that serves your state. Sponsored by the Department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, RCCs support state education agencies in their efforts to implement evidence-based policy and practice and realize the goals set in their Consolidated State Plans.
If you have any questions about the REL Program, please do not hesitate to contact me or a senior member of my team.
Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
Note: This blog reflects slight edits to the letter sent to Chief State School Officers. References to an attached brochure and a contact list for REL Program staff have been removed.