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Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance

Download the alliance’s overview handout [255 KB PDF icon ]

Partnership Facilitator

Billie Jo Day

Research Liaisons

Jill Bowdon

Heather Lavigne

Partnership Objective

The earliest years of a child’s life are a crucial period of development, with the brain forming more than 1 million new neural connections per second. Healthy environments and rich experiences during the early years provide a strong start and can have a lasting impact on an individual’s achievement, health, and even earnings. Investing in young children’s social-emotional development promotes long-term success, leading to higher self-esteem, increased motivation, and better relationships with peers—making this a high-leverage topic for education stakeholders across the Midwest region.

The REL Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (MECERA) brings together multiagency early childhood practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to increase the region’s capacity to access, conduct, interpret, and make sense of early childhood education research and to support the use of this research in decisionmaking at the state and local levels. MECERA’s primary focus is early childhood education in Illinois. In addition, a community of practice connects key stakeholders across the region and is an active partner in the research process.

Illinois has received several federal grants to expand access to early childhood education. Additionally, the Illinois State Board of Education is implementing a new kindergarten entry assessment and is committed to using the data to identify gaps in school readiness and to align the early childhood and K–12 systems more strategically.


  • Amy Blaum, Nokomis Public Schools
  • Shelia Boozer, Springfield Public Schools
  • Stephanie Cohen, Chicago Public Schools
  • Nicole Counihan, Valley View Public Schools
  • Mary Beth Corrigan, Illinois Department of Children & Family Services
  • Jane Fleming, Chicago Public Schools
  • Jason Helfer, Illinois State Board of Education
  • Nakisha Hobbs, Illinois Department of Human Services
  • Carisa Hurley, Illinois State Board of Education
  • Kimberly Mann, Illinois Department of Child and Family Services
  • Andrew McCree, Ann Reid Early Childhood Center
  • Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, Illinois Head Start Association
  • Kimberly Nelson, Rockford Public Schools
  • Arthur Noble, Chicago Public Schools
  • Bethany Patten, Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development
  • Elliot Regenstein, Foresight Law and Policy
  • Charlie Rosemond, Northern Illinois University
  • Emily Simon, Chicago Public Schools
  • Megan Smith, Valley View Public Schools
  • Cynthia Tate, Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development
  • Jillian Tsoukalas, Valley View Public Schools

Training, Coaching, and Technical Support Projects

Improving Literacy Instruction in Partner Districts: Running Records

Assessing literacy is challenging, and one barrier teachers face is identifying where students are struggling with reading. Several MECERA partner districts currently use running records to assess what a student knows and what that student is ready to learn next, but educators need more support to use the system. REL Midwest is developing a training for teachers, literacy coaches, and academic interventionists that outlines how to use running records for formative assessment and then use the data to make changes in classroom practices to better meet students’ literacy needs.

Improving Literacy Instruction With Springfield Public Schools and Valley View School District

Building on the Improving Literacy Instruction in Partner Districts: Running Records training project, REL Midwest is working closely with three elementary schools in Springfield, Illinois, and with three elementary schools in Romeoville (Valley View), Illinois, that are struggling to improve the literacy outcomes of their students. REL Midwest is providing coaching to help these schools review their data, identify areas for improvement, review evidence-based best practices, implement the practices, and move through two plan-do-study-act cycles. Although this project focuses on the kindergarten year, school and district leaders are learning a model that can be replicated in other grades or schools.

The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey: The Ins and Outs of Observational Data Collection

REL Midwest developed a training for district administrators and kindergarten teachers in Illinois. REL Midwest offered in-person opportunities to take the training in Illinois, as well as a virtual training. The trainings defined observational data collection, introduced best practices of observational data collection, and provided concrete examples based on the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey statewide readiness indicators. The recording, slide deck, and handouts are available online.

Demystifying the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey for Illinois Prekindergarten Providers

Building on previous training projects with MECERA, REL Midwest developed trainings on the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) for prekindergarten (preK) providers in Illinois. The trainings introduced the KIDS instrument, explained and provided examples of the statewide readiness indicators, offered examples of how preK teachers can use the readiness indicators to inform literacy instruction, reviewed crosswalks between KIDS and other common early childhood assessments, and analyzed district KIDS data. REL Midwest facilitated in-person sessions to bring together groups of preK providers working in the same district, as well as a virtual session to ensure that all Illinois preK educators can learn more about KIDS. A handout summarizing the ideas for KIDS data use generated during the training is available online.

Interpreting the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey Workshops

REL Midwest hosted data use workshops to help Illinois teachers use results from the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS), a kindergarten entry assessment, to set education goals and action steps. In the workshops, teachers had the opportunity to analyze their classrooms’ KIDS data in collaboration with their colleagues. The content was intended primarily for teachers, but school and district administrators who support kindergarten teachers also could benefit. A recording and handouts are available for viewing and download.

Additionally, REL Midwest worked with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to build capacity in the state for local stakeholders to offer the KIDS data use workshops. REL Midwest provided training-of-trainers sessions to KIDS coaches, regional education staff, district-nominated teacher leaders, administrators, and other staff to assist ISBE in developing a sustainable training plan for kindergarten teachers. Resources—including a facilitator’s guide, workbook, and slide decks—are available for viewing and download.

Works in Progress

Receipt of Professional Development and Literacy Outcomes in Grades P–2 in Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has embarked on a multiyear initiative to improve literacy instruction for students in prekindergarten through grade 2, called the P–2 Balanced Literacy Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to spread best practices to more classrooms through professional development and coaching. While CPS has some preliminary findings that its approach to professional development is building teacher capacity, REL Midwest is conducting this study to help CPS extend its learning about what type and dosage of professional development matters for supporting teachers in implementing effective literacy instruction and whether it matters differently for certain subgroups of teachers and students. The district will use the findings from this research to refine its approach to providing professional support for its P–2 teachers and will then decide whether and how to scale it up to classrooms district-wide.

Analysis of Illinois District-Level Reading Achievement Outcomes in Kindergarten and Grade 1 by Student Characteristics

This descriptive study is examining whether reading achievement gaps observed in two districts in Illinois are present in kindergarten. If so, the study will examine whether those gaps widen for some subgroups of students more than others as they move across kindergarten into grade 1.


Children’s Knowledge and Skills at Kindergarten Entry in Illinois: Results from the First Statewide Administration of the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey

This REL Midwest study analyzed the psychometric properties of the survey’s 14 required items and examined average skills and the variation in skill levels at kindergarten entry. It also interviewed teachers and principals about administration barriers and suggestions for improvement. A related infographic [229 KB PDF icon ] highlights the study’s key findings.

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