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The Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance: Improving school readiness and early literacy

MECERA in Review

By Joni Wackwitz
December 14, 2021

A child’s knowledge, skills, and behaviors at the start of kindergarten contribute to later school success (Claessens et al., 2009). In particular, children who have fewer opportunities to build skills in oral language and literacy before kindergarten may experience academic difficulties in later grades.

Education leaders in Illinois wanted to address gaps in early literacy development among groups of kindergarten students. In 2017, they partnered with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest to form the Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (MECERA). Over the past five years, the alliance has helped partners at the Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois school districts, and other agencies in using data and research to improve students’ literacy outcomes in kindergarten through grade 3. We highlight the alliance’s achievements and resources as its work draws to a close.

Working at the state and district levels to improve kindergarten readiness

MECERA’s early work focused on supporting Illinois’ statewide rollout of the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS). This kindergarten entry assessment is designed to help education leaders and teachers better understand differences in children’s knowledge and skills at kindergarten entry. Early in the school year, teachers observe and document each child in domains such as language and literacy, mathematics, learning approaches, and social-emotional development. The data then can be used to generate a developmental snapshot of Illinois children, from the individual to the state level.

Understanding and refining KIDS. To help the Illinois State Board of Education gain a clearer understanding of the new tool, REL Midwest analyzed the results of Illinois’ first statewide administration of KIDS in fall 2017, including the reliability and validity of the KIDS measures. In addition, a companion infographic highlights recommended actions for addressing challenges that teachers and principals had experienced [229 KB PDF icon ] when administering and reporting KIDS.

Using KIDS data to inform practice. REL Midwest then teamed up with the Illinois State Board of Education and partner districts to develop a series of KIDS workshops, which were delivered both virtually and in person across the state. A KIDS data use workshop walked kindergarten teachers through the process of analyzing their classroom KIDS data to identify student learning needs and inform instruction. To supplement the training, a REL Midwest video explains the value of kindergarten entry assessments. A follow-up workshop provided a KIDS primer for prekindergarten teachers and providers, including how to use readiness indicators to inform literacy instruction. And to lay the groundwork for a sustainable KIDS training plan, REL Midwest facilitated train-the-trainer workshops to equip KIDS coaches and others to lead KIDS data use workshops.

Incorporating KIDS observations into daily instruction. Illinois teachers had reported that they found it difficult to observe every child when administering KIDS, especially during teacher-led and whole-group instruction. To address this challenge, another MECERA workshop series shared research-driven best practices for incorporating KIDS observations into daily instruction. One strategy is the use of play-based learning, or child-led centers. Because of misconceptions about this approach, REL Midwest collaborated with Chicago public broadcasting station WTTW to produce a documentary on the benefits of play-based learning in kindergarten. REL Midwest then hosted public screenings of the documentary to engage educators and families in discussions about the approach.

MECERA’s KIDS workshops and resources helped strengthen Illinois educators’ comfort levels and expertise with using KIDS to drive instruction. The Illinois State Board of Education has since integrated many of the materials into its KIDS toolkit and training sessions. Other MECERA resources that support school readiness include a REL Midwest infographic highlighting ways to center equity in social and emotional learning, which remains one of the alliance’s most popular products.

Equipping districts to advance their early literacy goals

To align with Illinois’ state goals, MECERA narrowed its scope in 2019 to focus on early literacy before and during kindergarten. REL Midwest worked closely with the Illinois State Board of Education and partner districts to co-plan a series of applied research studies, coaching projects, and communication tools to equip districts with the resources to advance their early literacy goals.

Conducting research to guide early literacy programs and policy. REL Midwest conducted two studies to help guide partner districts’ early literacy program and policy decisions. The first study examined trends and gaps in reading achievement across kindergarten and grade 1 for District U–46 (Elgin Area Schools) and District 186 (Springfield Public Schools). The findings indicate the characteristics of students who are struggling to read and can help district leaders better target supports. Two companion infographics highlight the key findings for each district.

A second study examined Chicago Public Schools’ use of enhanced teacher coaching to improve early reading achievement in prekindergarten through grade 2. The findings suggest that the enhanced coaching, offered as part of the district’s P–2 Balanced Literacy Initiative, did not have an impact on student outcomes in reading. However, teachers, coaches, and leaders reported that the coaching was valuable and could be improved by allowing more time for instructional coaches to work with teachers.

Providing coaching to strengthen early literacy instruction. REL Midwest worked with Chicago Public Schools to create a research-based review process for selecting high-quality early literacy assessments. The work included creating a database of early literacy assessments and review protocols as well as processes for reviewing early literacy assessments, including their reliability, validity, and administrative information. In addition, REL Midwest coached the district on analyzing longitudinal student assessment data to understand the predictive validity of the literacy assessments in use across the district.

REL Midwest also worked with Springfield Public Schools across several projects to help kindergarten teachers, literacy coaches, and school leaders use early literacy data to inform classroom instruction and practices. An initial project focused on using running records as formative assessment to identify and target students’ early literacy needs. REL Midwest next worked closely with three Springfield elementary schools to help staff review their early literacy data, identify areas for improvement, and select and test evidence-based practices to target the areas of need. As part of this work, REL Midwest and its partners designed a classroom observation tool, the Phonological Awareness and Phonics Instruction Rubric, to assist elementary school leaders in observing teachers’ use of evidence-based instructional practices. Follow-up coaching gave school leaders practice using the tool to plan professional development.

Product snapshot: Phonological Awareness and Phonics Instruction Rubric

Developed in collaboration with Springfield Public Schools, this classroom observation tool is designed to assist elementary school leaders in monitoring teachers’ use of recommended instructional practices in phonological awareness and phonics. Leaders can use the rubric to observe teachers, provide feedback, and plan professional development. The rubric is designed to scaffold collaboration between school leaders and teachers and is not intended for use in formal teacher performance evaluations or as an accountability metric. Recommendations in the rubric are based on a What Works Clearinghouse practice guide.

Developing communication tools to move research into practice. REL Midwest and its MECERA partners also developed several communication tools to help districts move research into practice. Working again with WTTW, REL Midwest produced a documentary to highlight ways that community organizations, schools, and families can work together to support early literacy. In addition, REL Midwest drew on several What Works Clearinghouse practice guides to create a series of early literacy videos that address the following topics:

Other MECERA communication tools to support early literacy instruction include a quick-reference infographic on best practices for teaching beginning readers and a webinar on evidence-based literacy interventions to support young learners during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jill Bowdon, PhD, the REL Midwest research liaison for MECERA, reflected on her work with the partnership. “Traditionally, in my career as a researcher, I would come up with questions, get the data, go away for a long period of time, crunch some numbers, and then come back and write a report. In working with MECERA, I really appreciate the opportunity to upend that process and engage with our partners from the start to build relationships, understand their needs, and do the work together. It makes for better research and more actionable evidence that our partners can use in their districts.”


Claessens, A., Duncan, G., & Engel, M. (2009). Kindergarten skills and fifth-grade achievement: Evidence from the ECLS-K. Economics of Education Review, 28(4), 415–427.

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Author information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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