REL Northeast & Islands is coordinating 10 research partnerships and alliances, each focused on one of four high-priority areas: (1) early childhood education and school readiness; (2) college and career readiness; (3) professional development and teacher preparation for effective instruction; and (4) educational equity for access and attainment. These alliances and partnerships are region-based collaborations between researchers and stakeholders who need to use research to address high-leverage needs. Partnerships and alliances guide the applied research, technical support, and capacity building for data-use work at the REL, and they ensure our work is grounded in regional needs.
To kick off these new alliances and partnerships, REL Northeast & Islands researchers facilitated a series of virtual or in-person research agenda workshops with the core planning group (CPG) of each alliance and partnership. CPG members typically include state education agency leaders, district and school administrators, teachers, education researchers, and representatives from regional education service providers or other organizations that work with and support local schools. Our four research alliances each have CPG members from several jurisdictions who will collaborate on projects and studies that address shared needs and interests. Each of our six partnerships works with CPG members from a single state or territory and focuses on a particular research priority in that jurisdiction.
Our research agenda workshops led CPG members through a formal process of identifying high-priority issues, developing possible research questions, and then narrowing and refining those questions into a concrete and achievable multi-year plan for research, training, and technical support. To prepare for the workshops, REL Northeast & Islands researcher Natalie Lacireno-Paquet and I collaborated with our REL colleagues to modify previously developed workshop materials that are described in the 2014 REL Northeast & Islands report, “Developing a Coherent Research Agenda: Lessons from the REL Northeast and Islands Research Agenda Workshops.” These materials include a facilitator’s guide, a participant guide, and presentation slides, which can be adapted to suit specific alliance and partnership needs. Our researchers who are leading alliances and partnerships then used these materials to structure their workshops and guide their CPG members through a series of collaborative agenda-setting activities.
REL Northeast & Islands researcher Clare Irwin leads the Vermont Universal PreK Research Partnership, whose members include state-level administrators and staff from the Vermont Agencies of Education and Human Services, which together oversee the state’s new universal prekindergarten (preK) program. The partnership’s goal is to support the education research needs of Vermont and inform state decisionmakers as they consider how to refine regulations of the state’s universal preK legislation (Act 166), which saw its first full implementation during the 2016/17 school year. Irwin facilitated two research agenda workshops, and the brainstorming exercises and priority-setting activities helped the partnership members define and articulate the data and research they need to inform state policymakers as they consider possible changes to the legislation. Among the research questions that percolated to the top of the list were:
- Are child characteristics associated with the type of preK program children are enrolled in?
- Is enrollment in preK associated with children’s kindergarten readiness?
- How are children with special needs accessing Vermont’s preK programs?
“I appreciated that the research questions were generated by the practitioners and policymakers we are partnering with, not by us at the REL,” Irwin said. “That is so valuable and important, especially in partnerships where the members need the answers to the questions we are addressing.”
I co-lead the Professional Learning and Development Research Alliance with my REL Northeast & Islands colleague Nicole Breslow. The alliance’s goal is to support district leaders across the region in making evidence-based decisions regarding the selection, design, implementation scale up, and/or discontinuation of professional development programs and interventions. Our CPG members come from many jurisdictions and are mostly district and regional leaders who support professional learning. Our research agenda workshops provided a unique opportunity for them to discuss and debate shared research needs with their peers across the region.
“There were individuals in the group from different perspectives, roles, and responsibilities, and from different areas in the region, but we coalesced around some things,” said CPG member Colleen Callahan, director of professional issues for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and a member of the Rhode Island Board of Education. “Whether you were from a rural area or an urban area, or one state versus the other, our discussion uncovered more commonalities than differences, which truly helped shape our prioritization.”
After two workshops, this alliance’s CPG settled on three priority research topics:
- Evaluating professional learning and development and using that evidence in making decisions.
- Studying professional learning models, such as new teacher induction programs.
- Using data to identify and align professional learning opportunities with district needs.
With the research agenda workshops behind us, each alliance and partnership is finalizing a research plan for the next two to five years. Then, REL Northeast & Islands researchers and CPG members will continue meeting on a regular basis to discuss and oversee the research studies; dissemination events; and training, coaching, or technical support activities that result from the research agendas. Keep your eye out for updates on these projects and events!