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The Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance: Partnering with district and state leaders to improve educational outcomes among Black students

Looking Back with MAGRA

By Maggi Ibis
October 28, 2021

Many Black students excel academically and draw on resources to help them succeed, such as supportive peers and teachers and strong family ties. Along the path to educational success, however, Black students face many hurdles that can prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Since 2017, the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance (MAGRA) has joined together researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and advocates with the goal of improving academic opportunities and success for Black students. Facilitated by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest, the alliance supports partners—primarily in Wisconsin, but also in Illinois and Minnesota—in using data and research to address problems of policy and practice.

This December, MAGRA’s 5-year commitment draws to an end. Read on to learn about some of the alliance’s key projects and resources, which address four priority areas that members identified: evidence-based and culturally responsive practices, professional learning, a racially diverse teacher workforce, and family engagement.

Supporting Wisconsin’s state policy goals to improve Black students’ academic success

Early MAGRA projects focused on supporting the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in its efforts to improve academic outcomes among the state’s Black students. These efforts align with Wisconsin’s state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which includes long-term goals related to increasing Black students’ English language arts achievement, math achievement, and graduation rates. To help inform state policy, MAGRA members began by reviewing what researchers have learned about programs, policies, and practices that foster Black students’ academic excellence.

In 2018, REL Midwest published a systematic review that identified 20 evidence-supported interventions associated with favorable academic outcomes among Black students. These interventions include developing strong student‒teacher relationships, involving parents and caregivers at school, and communicating high expectations for students in mathematics. The report remains one of REL Midwest’s most viewed and downloaded resources.

To share the 20 interventions with educators across the region, the alliance produced a companion infographic [347 KB PDF icon ] that highlights the strategies and the process used to identify them. In addition, the alliance developed a video that showcases how educators at Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin are implementing several of the strategies to support Black students, who make up about a quarter of the district’s diverse student body. MAGRA partners shared these resources broadly, incorporated them into professional development sessions, and used them for school improvement planning.

To help inform district policy, MAGRA also provided a series of workshops for Wisconsin school board members. The trainings shared the strategies from the systematic review as well as other research to guide board members in addressing inequities and supporting Black students’ success.

Product snapshot: Evidence-supported interventions associated with Black students’ educational outcomes.

Product snapshot: Evidence-supported interventions associated with Black students’ educational outcomes

REL Midwest researchers reviewed almost 4,000 research abstracts to identify policies, practices, and programs associated with improved achievement among Black students and supported by studies that provided strong, moderate, or promising evidence according to the tiers of evidence established by ESSA.

Promoting the integration of culturally relevant practices in district policy and programming to support Wisconsin’s Black students

Building on these efforts, MAGRA also worked to support Wisconsin districts and schools in using culturally responsive practices that show promise in improving outcomes for Black students. In partnership with the Cooperative Educational Service Agency 1—one of the 12 regional agencies serving Wisconsin’s schools—MAGRA hosted an in-person event on promising culturally responsive practices and the research behind them. In addition, the alliance produced a documentary exploring promising practices to support Black students on their journey to postsecondary education, including the embrace of culturally responsive education.

MAGRA also collaborated with Wisconsin DPI and the Wisconsin Response to Intervention Center to conduct a study to better understand school participation in the state’s Building Culturally Responsive Systems professional development program. The findings describe the percentage of Wisconsin schools statewide that participated in the program, their characteristics and practices, and the relationship between program participation and school outcomes. A related infographic highlights an approach for measuring the use of culturally responsive practices [416 KB PDF icon ]. Education leaders in Wisconsin can use this information to improve training on culturally responsive practices and to guide future research.

These MAGRA projects are helping Wisconsin address the needs of Black students and inform policy and programming at the state, district, and school levels. Chrishirella Warthen-Sutton, PhD, the former manager of the Office of Family and Community Engagement for Racine Unified School District, shared her experience with learning about the impact of culturally responsive practices:

“Cultural responsiveness has the potential to shift mindsets and influence practices that affirm and acknowledge the brilliance of Black children. The identifiable challenge is that there are many teachers who are not culturally competent. Belief systems shape a person's worldview of others who are culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse.”

Supporting Black students by supporting Black teachers and building a diverse teacher workforce

Research indicates that having a Black teacher is associated with higher expectations, increased achievement, and fewer disciplinary issues for Black students (Conway-Turner et al., 2020; Goldhaber et al., 2015; Jones et al., 2020). With this in mind, MAGRA also developed a suite of activities and resources to help districts recruit and retain a racially diverse teacher workforce and support Black teachers.

In Wisconsin, a REL Midwest team collaborated with the Racine district to provide in-depth coaching to district leaders on foundational factors that contribute to educational equity and actionable strategies for building a diverse teacher workforce. As part of the project, the team walked district leaders through identifying problems of practice and understanding root causes related to the recruitment and retention of diverse teachers; developing logic models to guide the selection and implementation of evidence-based practices; and planning a continuous improvement cycle to support the fidelity, effectiveness, and sustainability of practices that the district implements over time.

To amplify this work across the region, REL Midwest hosted a webinar and produced a video series on creating inclusive and antiracist workplaces for Black teachers. These resources examined reasons Black teachers leave the profession, evidence-based strategies for retaining Black teachers, and how building a diverse teacher workforce can serve as a high-leverage strategy for improving outcomes for Black students. Featured practices included making space for the perspectives of Black teachers in decisionmaking, providing implicit bias and cultural competency training, and offering teacher mentoring programs.

Drawing on these resources, MAGRA then provided a requested training on creating inclusive environments for Black teachers to the Minority Student Achievement Network Consortium at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. This national coalition of 29 multiracial districts seeks to understand and eliminate persistent opportunity and achievement gaps in their schools.

Additional work in the region

MAGRA also has worked with partners in the Midwest region on efforts to address equity gaps. In Minnesota, REL Midwest provided in-depth coaching and consultation to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to support efforts to reduce disparities in student discipline. A companion report from REL Midwest examined the use of exclusionary discipline practices by Minnesota local education agencies.

In Illinois, REL Midwest is providing implementation and systems change support to staff from Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 to introduce a curriculum change and remove an academic tracking program. Through professional development coaching, REL Midwest also is supporting Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in Illinois to deliver culturally responsive instruction as a way to improve outcomes for students of color and students with disabilities.

Jameela Conway-Turner, PhD, a REL Midwest research liaison for MAGRA, reflected on the partnership’s efforts. “Our goal is to bridge research to practice and support an evidence-based school system that is equitable,” said Dr. Conway-Turner. “I hope that all of the projects we have engaged in and the resources we have developed help our state, district, and school partners reach those goals.”

>> Learn more about MAGRA and browse its resources


Conway-Turner, J., Fagan, K., Mendoza, A., & Rahim, D. (2020). Participation in a professional development program on culturally responsive practices in Wisconsin (REL 2021–047). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest.

Goldhaber, D., Theobald, R., & Tien, C. (2015). The theoretical and empirical arguments for diversifying the teacher workforce: A review of the evidence (CEDR Working Paper No. 2015-9). University of Washington Bothell, Center for Education Data & Research.

Jones, C. J., Reeves, M. A., & Rainey, K. (2020). Reorganizing the professional culture in Wisconsin schools to eliminate racial achievement gaps. University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness Research Partnership. [3,248 KB PDF icon ]

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Author information

Maggi Ibis Staff Picture

Maggi Ibis

Research Associate | REL Midwest


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (11)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

Teacher Recruitment (2)

Teacher Retention (2)

Teacher Workforce (14)

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