Welcome to the first installment of the NCER research network leads spotlight series! With funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), NCER has invested in research grants that will generate information about accelerating learning that is useful, usable, and used. The awardees, who are members of these new research networks, are addressing the urgent challenges faced by schools as they support students’, teachers’, and school districts’ recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Today, we’ll take you through our conversation with Dr. Rebecca Griffiths, senior principal education reporter at SRI International, and hear about the Leveraging Evidence to Accelerate Recovery Nationwide Network (LEARN Network).
NCER: What are some of the biggest challenges facing education systems, teachers, and learners post-COVID, and what are some ways that education researchers can help to target solutions to those challenges?
Dr. Rebecca Griffiths: The biggest challenges facing education systems, teachers, and learners post-COVID are not new, for the most part; rather, they are long-standing problems and inequities that have worsened. To put a finer point on it: while all students lost ground academically, students from underserved and underresourced communities were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, further exacerbating existing academic disadvantages.
For education researchers hoping to support COVID recovery by introducing evidence-based programs and practices, timing is an issue. Designing a new curriculum or intervention typically takes years of development and testing, and we (as a country) don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. What we can do is focus attention on solutions that already have proven effectiveness, which means making sure that educators know they exist and have support for implementing them. Some adaptation may be needed given the urgency of the current circumstances. For example, if the number of students reading two years below grade level jumped from a handful to a large share, teachers will need a different way to meet that need. So an intervention or online tutoring system may need to be adapted to serve many more kids.
There are a few implications here for researchers who develop products such as curriculums and interventions that are intended to impact student learning:
- We should be thinking about how our products and interventions can be adapted to meet needs with greater urgency at a larger scale. This may mean that the implementation process needs to be simplified, streamlined, or reconfigured to support new participants (such as parent tutors) in the educational process.
- We should ensure that the products and interventions we provide fit with the needs, environments, and decision-making processes of educators. Gold-standard efficacy studies will not make a solution attractive to users if the solution doesn’t address a high-priority need, is overly difficult and expensive to implement, or doesn’t fit the criteria of various stakeholders who have a say in selecting products and interventions for their schools. We need to attend to the user environment, which we can do by ensuring the communities we aim to serve have a voice in designing solutions.
- We can do a much better job with how we typically disseminate information about evidence-based products. “Dissemination” sounds a bit like dropping a bunch of leaflets out of an airplane, but actually requires a much more energetic stance than this word implies. Effective dissemination integrates at least four activities that commercial providers typically undertake to get their solutions out into the world: building interest in and awareness of a solution (marketing); persuading people that a solution is the best choice for their needs and that they should dedicate resources to it (sales); making sure that people have access to a solution (distribution); and making sure that people have the support they need to implement a solution with integrity (customer support). Those of us who develop educational products and interventions need to think beyond journal publications and academic conferences if we want to reach a meaningful share of our target users. Of course, not all researchers have the capacity or desire to undertake these activities, and in these cases, we might consider alternate pathways to scale, such as licensing our intellectual creations to others (e.g., curriculum publishers or entrepreneurs) who are equipped and appropriately motivated to take these steps.
NCER: What is your view of a research network, and how does it differ from a traditional education research project?
Dr. Griffiths: A research network seeks to amplify the impact of its members so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and to generate lessons learned for a broader community. We can do this by identifying promising strategies and shared challenges within the network, facilitating a learning community to share expertise and experience among network members in service of overcoming those challenges, and then documenting these processes and successes to share with the broader field.
NCER: What are the specific goals for this network, and how does it support the goals of the ARP?
Dr. Griffiths: The LEARN Network (which stands for Leveraging Evidence to Accelerate Recovery Nationwide) is led by SRI and includes four teams of researchers focused on scaling existing EBPs in K–8 literacy or mathematics: Targeted Reading Instruction (TRI) for students in K–3, integrating for students in grades 2–6, Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) Reading to improve learning for underrepresented student groups, and an adaptation of the Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI) for underserved middle-grade students.
The network has two related goals. One is to adapt and scale adoption of evidence-based practices and products that can help educators address the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning, particularly for students who were disproportionately harmed. Of our four product teams, three are focused on K–8 literacy, especially supporting students who are reading below grade level, and the fourth is focused on an intervention for fifth-grade math. As the 2022 NAEP scores showed, early math and literacy are critical areas in which we need to help students make up lost ground. As network lead, SRI will help these projects prepare for scaling.
Longer term, the LEARN Network will provide a model, tools, and resources to inform the development and adoption of educational innovations. These resources will help education researchers ensure that their innovations are designed from the ground up with the potential to achieve impact at scale for students. They will also help practitioners and policymakers know what to consider when investing in educational innovations.
NCER: How do you envision this network working to reach those goals? What’s the value added for building this network relative to a set of independent research teams?
Dr. Griffiths: In the LEARN Network, SRI is assembling and deploying a pool of scaling, equity, and research experts to accelerate progress. The product teams are experts in their respective fields of literacy and math education, which we can augment with a more demand-driven perspective of their research products. We can take them through a structured process of investigating stakeholders’ needs, aligning products and practices to educators’ environments and selection criteria, and developing effective dissemination strategies. SRI brings unique expertise to this task, given our history of transitioning inventions from laboratories to market.
We are also assembling a group of external advisors with networks and expertise in rural and small-town schools, state educational systems, ed-tech investing and entrepreneurship, and implementation science.
Through the LEARN Network, product teams have access to a rich set of perspectives and expertise that would be impractical to build for individual projects.
In addition, SRI will conduct some original research to advance our understanding of how educators and educational agencies select and adopt products and interventions. We know these processes are confounding to many researchers, in part because they vary so much by school, district, and state. At the same time, we believe we can help our network and the broader research community by shedding some light on a few key questions, such as how these processes may differ by product type (e.g., complete curriculum vs. supplementary resources), district characteristics (e.g., size, locale), and other key factors. Our research will also explore current barriers or challenges to identifying EBPs aligned with their contexts and students’ needs and explore what resources or tools would make it easier to do so.
Last, the product teams include seasoned researchers with decades of experience developing and disseminating evidence-based practices and products. They bring valuable perspectives from these experiences, and they are also investigating some similar questions about how educators discover and decide what tools to use. As network lead, we aim to create spaces and facilitate conversations so that all the teams can learn from each other.
NCER: What approaches do you propose to use to cultivate a meaningful connection among the research teams in the network? What are some challenges in bringing independent research teams together like this?
Dr. Griffiths: Our aim is to be very responsive to what the product teams tell us they want help with, while encouraging them to aim high with their scaling goals. In education research, we often think of scaling in terms of growing implementation from a few schools to a few dozen schools. What if we reframed our perspective to consider “reach”? As in, What share of the nation’s 100,000 public schools, or a particular population of students, are we reaching? That really shifts how we think about what kind of organizational infrastructure or strategic choices are needed to have a meaningful impact.
Our purpose as network lead is to help network members be successful, and to do that, we know that we need to demonstrate our ability to add value. The product teams all have ambitious goals and tight timelines, and we are mindful of that. Fortunately, the product teams were already aware of the Invent-Apply-Transition framework that SRI pioneered and saw how it could be helpful to them. In order to support meaningful connections among the teams, we are facilitating regular cross-team meetings, each focused on a particular challenge (for example, stakeholder mapping, product-user fit, dissemination strategies). In these working sessions we will draw upon expertise residing in the product teams, in SRI’s education division and our unit that is focused on transitioning inventions to market, and among our external advisors. We anticipate that these will be rich, generative sessions that will provide the product teams (and SRI) with new insights about pathways to scale.
NCER: Are there some generalizable tools or lessons learned that are likely to come out of this network project that you think will benefit the education research community as a whole?
Dr. Griffiths: As I mentioned, we are drawing heavily from SRI’s Invent-Apply-Transition framework to guide product teams through the process of preparing to scale. As we do this, we are developing tools and resources specifically for scaling education products that will be accessible to a broader community of researchers who aspire to have a wide-reaching impact. We also expect to learn some things through our work with the product teams that we can share through briefs and presentations. In addition, we are considering how we might design engagements for a broader community of researchers that allow for more-interactive sharing of tools, resources, and lessons. Stay tuned!
Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Rebecca Griffiths! Come back tomorrow for our next network lead spotlight!