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What We Have Learned from Our Work with Teachers

Dr. Karen Shakman

Dr. Karen Shakman
Research Scientist, REL Northeast & Islands

Sat Feb 01 2020

REL Northeast & Islands researchers work closely with educators to help them use existing evidence as well as their own data to arrive at the best instructional approaches for their students.

This work takes us to schools across the Northeast & Islands Region, from Connecticut—where we partnered with teachers and administrators to better understand best practices for English learners—to Massachusetts, where we collaborated with school-based teams to apply the evidence on social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions. And from Vermont—where we are working with districts to review their state report card data to guide planning for continuous improvement—to Puerto Rico, where REL facilitators are providing training to new data teams about how to use the data inquiry cycle to differentiate instruction for their students.

Across all our projects, we have learned several important lessons about what educators may need to make the best use of data and evidence. Of these, three key learnings stand out.

  1. Teachers and administrators have a real appetite for research and evidence.

    Educators want to know what research suggests are best practices, and they are eager to learn from others. However, presenting research findings is not enough. Educators want help applying research to their own contexts and figuring out what is most relevant to them. They want to consider the evidence, raise questions about the findings, and—most importantly—develop a clear understanding of the interventions, because educators know the devil is in the details.

    At REL Northeast & Islands, our researchers collaborate with educators to help them use research effectively. For example, we worked closely with several districts in Massachusetts that want to improve their students’ SEL. A number of useful research reviews of the evidence on existing SEL interventions exist, but, as described above, educators need help applying these studies to their own context. We facilitated a workshop series with school-based practitioners to help them consider the relevance of the research to their contexts, and help them make decisions about which interventions to implement in their schools.

    “Rather than having SEL remain a current educational catch phrase,” said Geri Lyn Ajemian, director of curriculum at Littleton Public Schools, a Massachusetts district that participated in the workshop series, “the REL workshops helped us connect research on social and emotional learning with our district’s priorities in ways that would be impactful in classrooms.”

  2. Educators need systems for embedding data use into the culture of their schools.

    Educators want to dive deeply into the data, particularly about their own students, but having the data is not enough. Teachers and administrators need processes to review their student data, check their understanding of the data, hypothesize about the patterns they see, and problem-solve together how to address any concerns. They value and appreciate protocols for engaging in this work because they can then continue to build their data savvy on their own. They can also share these protocols with colleagues in their professional learning communities, faculty meetings, or other existing structures in their school or district context.

    REL Northeast & Islands researchers provide a lot of coaching and training around processes and protocols that build a culture of data use. Recently in Rhode Island, we worked with school-based teams to examine data related to their high school graduates who had enrolled in remedial courses upon entering college. The educators dug into potential root causes for the remedial enrollment, which included looking at the demographic characteristics of the graduates who were more likely to end up in remedial courses. This helped them to hypothesize about the patterns they observed and consider strategies to better prepare their students for postsecondary programs.

  3. Educators need ongoing opportunities to examine data together.

    We know from research that the best professional development is sustained and embedded. Just like students, teachers need time and opportunities to practice new skills. At REL Northeast & Islands, we provide ongoing support to educators so they have the skills and confidence they need to initiate data-use activities back at their schools. We also prioritize working with teams of educators, such as in our workshop series for districts in Connecticut.

    Over the course of two years, we introduced educators to evidence-based practices for identifying and supporting students who are dually identified as English learners and as eligible for special education services. We worked with both teachers and administrators to help them examine their district’s identification and data-use processes. A particular goal was to bring together the teachers responsible for providing services to English learners with their district colleagues in special education. Getting these different players in the same room is critical to a district’s success in supporting English learners with Individualized Education Programs. As a final step, our REL researchers engaged the teams in action planning to determine next steps for improving their district’s processes for identifying and supporting their dually identified students.

    “I found it extremely useful that these workshops brought together ESL [English as a second language] teachers, special education teachers, and classroom teachers, particularly since many of the special education teachers had not worked previously with English learners and were not aware of specific approaches that are most effective with these students,” said Meghan Alubicki Flick, an English learner consultant at the Connecticut State Department of Education, which collaborated with us on the workshops. “Team-based conversations like these help build a common language and shared understanding that allows the school to better support students.”

Working with teachers, administrators, and district leaders to help them use data to make decisions is the job of the REL researcher. It is also our greatest privilege. Collaborating closely with educators across our region—from the largest urban districts to the smallest rural enclaves—allows us to witness the dedication and enthusiasm they bring to their work with students. They value the opportunities the REL provides them to step back from the day-to-day work of teaching students and managing schools to more closely examine how their students are faring. In collaboration with REL Northeast & Islands and one another, they embrace research, analyze their own data, identify areas of need, develop plans to address concerns, and implement practices to meet the needs of their diverse students.

Learn more about REL Northeast & Islands’ training, coaching, and technical support.