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The Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance: Equipping states and districts to support students’ postsecondary success

MCRRA in Review

By Cora Goldston
December 14, 2021

A high-quality education includes equipping students with the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed after high school. For states and districts, this means ensuring that students have equitable opportunities to explore career pathways, gain real-world experience, recover credits and progress toward graduation, and learn about postsecondary options.

To strengthen career and college readiness, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest formed the Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance (MCRRA) in 2017 in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Education, Lakes Country Service Cooperative, Minnesota Alliance for Youth, and several school districts. Over the past five years, MCRRA has conducted research to understand students’ high school coursetaking patterns and career and college pathways. Drawing on this and other research, MCRRA also has provided training and coaching to help state and district leaders in Minnesota and the Midwest support students’ aspirations after high school.

As the work of MCRRA concludes at the end of 2021, we are pleased to share highlights from the alliance’s projects to support state equity efforts, advance career and technical education (CTE), help students recover credits, and develop indicators of postsecondary success.

Supporting equitable state and district policies and practices to strengthen students’ career and college readiness

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature passed a statute known as World’s Best Workforce, which aims to support high-quality education from early childhood through high school graduation. Under this statute, districts and charter schools must develop strategic plans that include instructional benchmarks and measures to evaluate progress toward five specific goals, one of which is that all students graduate high school.

At the request of MCRRA members from the Minnesota Department of Education, REL Midwest scanned 198 districts’ World’s Best Workforce plans to learn whether they included strategies related to improving equity and providing effective educators. REL Midwest then hosted a training session with department staff to share the results and collaboratively make sense of the findings. This training helped the department refine its supports for districts’ World’s Best Workforce plans. Building on this state-level training, REL Midwest hosted two trainings (session 1 and session 2) for districts on actionable strategies to foster equitable, high-quality education opportunities.

MCRRA members also were interested in learning more about the career and college pathways of Minnesota public high school graduates to inform student supports. In response, REL Midwest conducted a study that analyzed longitudinal data on Minnesota graduates’ career and college pathways. A companion video highlights the study’s main findings. This study informed MCRRA members’ efforts to support districts as they implement career and college readiness strategies.

In addition, MCRRA worked to boost career and college readiness among specific groups of students.

Supporting career and technical education in Indiana and Minnesota

In partnership with MCRRA members and state agency leaders in Indiana and Minnesota, REL Midwest conducted a study to examine CTE participation patterns and postsecondary outcomes in Indiana and Minnesota. The study focused on high school CTE concentrators, or students who had completed multiple CTE courses in a single career pathway or field. A set of infographics highlight the key findings from each state. To highlight the implications of the study and opportunities to expand access to CTE, REL Midwest also developed trainings and other resources for educators, students, and families.

Equipping districts with practices to support at-risk students and credit recovery

MCRRA members recognized that credit recovery is a crucial component of achieving the World’s Best Workforce goal that all students graduate from high school.

Survey of credit recovery practices. In support of this goal, REL Midwest provided coaching to help the Minnesota Department of Education develop a statewide survey to learn more about the credit recovery practices at Minnesota districts and high schools. REL Midwest then partnered with the department to analyze the survey findings as well as interviews with school leaders. A report and related infographic [217 KB PDF icon ] summarize the findings. These resources are informing the Minnesota Department of Education’s efforts to support effective credit recovery practices across the state.

Area learning center networked improvement communities. In Minnesota, area learning centers (ALCs) help high school students recover credits and receive specialized support. To help ALCs implement effective practices, REL Midwest and the Minnesota Department of Education formed a networked improvement community (NIC) of Minnesota ALCs. To share the NIC’s takeaways with a broader audience, REL Midwest developed research-based implementation tools for other NIC leaders and hosted a webinar on how to form NICs to improve student learning outcomes.

Product snapshot: Using Data to Enact Change

A REL Midwest documentary relates the story of the first NIC cohort, which included ALC teachers and leaders in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The program features interviews with participating teachers and administrators about their experiences identifying, testing, and continuously improving practices to support credit recovery. In addition, students discuss how their teachers’ participation in the NIC has helped them.

After working with the first ALC NIC, which was based in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, REL Midwest and MCRRA members recognized the need for a similar collaboration among rural ALCs. This second NIC of rural area learning centers focused primarily on goal-setting practices, which studies show may have potential for keeping students on-track to finish their credits and graduate.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sessions for part of the first NIC and for all of the second NIC took place virtually. The continued engagement of members demonstrated that virtual NICs can be a successful model for connecting teams that are geographically dispersed but face similar challenges.

Competency-based education practices. Another approach that may help students recover more credits is competency-based education (CBE), which allows for flexibility in how students demonstrate understanding. As an introduction to CBE, REL Midwest developed an infographic that describes key components of CBE, the underlying evidence base, and actionable strategies for school leaders and teachers. In addition, REL Midwest hosted a webinar to help teachers and school leaders use CBE practices. REL Midwest also facilitated trainings for two Minnesota districts to provide more in-depth support on implementing evidence-based practices relevant to each district’s specific context.

Product snapshot: Promoting data literacy

REL Midwest provided two training sessions on data literacy for staff at Change Inc., an alternative education program in St. Paul. The sessions explained the importance of data literacy for making informed policy and program decisions, the use of logic models as a foundation for effective data collection, and strategies for telling meaningful and actionable stories with data.

Helping educators create nurturing and responsive learning environments

Other MCCRA projects in Minnesota helped schools and agencies create nurturing and responsive learning environments. In partnership with Twin Cities Public Television, REL Midwest produced a documentary on creating a positive school climate. By building connections with students and fostering social and emotional growth, school leaders can set up their students for success. Another documentary highlights efforts in Minnesota to integrate culturally responsive practices into the classroom.

Informing Iowa state policy about career and college readiness measures

In addition to projects in Minnesota, MCRRA partnered with the Iowa Department of Education to help the state develop measures for career and college readiness, which is an indicator in the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan. REL Midwest reviewed research on existing measures and scanned other state ESSA plans. REL Midwest staff then hosted a coaching session to present the findings and start developing the measures with the Iowa Postsecondary Readiness Indicator Workgroup.

“The work of the MCRRA partnership has spanned all levels of the education system, from working with educators to improve their daily practice in the classroom to working with state agency teams,” said Susan Burkhauser, PhD, MCRRA research liaison. “We’ve seen evidence-based research and practices put to use and embraced at all levels, and it has been a privilege to be a part of it.”

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Author information

Cora Goldston Staff Picture

Cora Goldston

Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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