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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.


  • Shelia Boozer, Springfield Public Schools
  • Stephanie Cohen, Chicago Public Schools
  • Nicole Counihan, Valley View Public Schools
  • Kathleen Cox, School District U-46
  • Jane Fleming, Chicago Public Schools
  • Kimberly Nelson, Rockford Public Schools
  • Arthur Noble, Chicago Public Schools
  • Emily Simon, Chicago Public Schools
  • Jillian Tsoukalas, Valley View Public Schools

Training, Coaching, and Technical Support Projects

Data Visualization for Improving Literacy Instruction: Springfield Public Schools

Building on the findings of the Trends and Gaps in Reading Achievement Across Kindergarten and Grade 1 in Two Illinois School Districts study, REL Midwest is engaging with Springfield Public Schools district staff on a coaching project focused on selecting and utilizing a data visualization tool to consistently publish early literacy data. REL Midwest is also working with Springfield staff to build their capacity to use the selected data visualization tool to tell compelling stories to relevant stakeholders about early literacy progressions in the district.

Using the Phonological Awareness and Phonics Instruction Rubric for Classroom Observation: Springfield Public Schools

Monitoring implementation of evidence-based practices in classrooms can be difficult. Through an earlier coaching project on improving literacy instruction, REL Midwest developed a classroom observation tool, the Phonological Awareness and Phonics Instruction Rubric [476 KB PDF icon ], to assist school leaders in measuring whether instructional practices are aligned with recommendations 2 and 3 from the What Works Clearinghouse’s Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade practice guide. In this project, REL Midwest is coaching Springfield Public Schools school leaders to use the rubric and review the data collected to identify their teachers’ professional development needs. The content is intended for elementary school leaders and teachers.

Early Literacy Assessment Coaching With Chicago Public Schools

Aligning literacy efforts across schools is important to improving students’ early literacy outcomes. One step in that process is having common, high-quality assessments that can give a clear picture of what students know and what they are ready to learn next. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) would like to ensure that assessments used for early literacy in kindergarten–grade 2 are high-quality and support the district’s vision to increase early literacy. In this coaching project, REL Midwest is working with CPS to develop a review process and criteria for several assessments currently being used at different CPS schools, including investigating the reliability and validity of these assessments. The resulting information will support the district’s early literacy goals and adoption of high-quality early literacy assessments. Resources are available for viewing and download.

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 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 developed 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. The slides from each training session are available online.

Building on the earlier training project, REL Midwest is working closely with several elementary schools in Springfield, 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.


Using Enhanced Coaching of Teachers to Improve Reading Achievement in Grades PreK–2 in Chicago Public Schools

This REL Midwest study examined the effect on student reading achievement of being in schools that received enhanced coaching supports as part of Chicago Public Schools’ P–2 Balanced Literacy Initiative to improve literacy instruction and looked at the successes and challenges of implementation.

Trends and Gaps in Reading Achievement across Kindergarten and Grade 1 in Two Illinois School Districts

This REL Midwest study describes trends and gaps in reading achievement across kindergarten and grade 1 in two diverse Illinois school districts: the 2016/17 kindergarten cohort of District U–46 (Elgin Area Schools) and the 2017/18 kindergarten cohort of District 186 (Springfield Public Schools). Drawing on a different reading assessment in each district, the study revealed gaps in reading achievement. Related infographics share key findings for each district.

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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