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National Evaluation of the Comprehensive Technical Assistance Centers

NCEE 2011-4031
August 2011

Center Operations

In designing the Center program, ED established structures and expectations for the functioning of the Centers. Key features of the design, emphasized in ED's Notice Inviting Applications, were a requirement for needs assessment in consultation with clients, a focus on technical assistance with state responsibilities in school and district improvement, and the specialized roles of RCCs and CCs. The Centers' work from 2006–07 to 2008–09 conformed to the program's requirements in each of these respects. The barriers to technical assistance that Centers most often reported were staff turnover in state agencies and limitations on the CCs' scope of work.

A key expectation of the Centers was to organize their plans around the priorities and needs of client organizations. At the start of each program year, the Centers were required to deliver a management plan to ED outlining the program of technical assistance they planned to provide. Across years, Centers used a range of methods to assess needs and plan technical assistance with their clients. Among RCCs, there was a shift away from conducting surveys for needs assessment while maintaining frequent interaction with states as a means of learning about needs: all 16 RCCs reported assessing needs for 2008–09 through ongoing communication with state staff (an increase from 15 RCCs in 2006–07); 15 had a designated liaison to the SEA on staff in 2008–09 (up from 13 in 2006–07); 8 of the 16 conducted surveys (down from 11). Across years, all 5 of the CCs reported forming their work plans with RCC input acquired through ongoing communication; in 2008–09 all 5 CCs reported surveying RCCs (up from 4 of the 5 in 2006–07). In addition, all 5 CCs reported learning about state needs for 2008–09 through ongoing interaction with states as well as through communication with RCCs.

Centers were expected to show responsiveness to needs and requests for technical assistance but might not be in a position to respond to every client request. In each year, more than half of the Centers reported that they had turned down a client request for assistance, a situation that was handled differently by RCCs and by CCs. The number of Centers that reported having turned down one or more requests was 12 of the 21 in 2006–07, 13 of 21 in 2007–08, and 14 of 21 in 2008–09. Among Centers that declined any client request for assistance in 2008–09, RCCs most often reported substituting a different type of assistance (7 of the 10 RCCs that turned down work used this strategy), but none of the CCs reported doing so. The reason most commonly reported by RCCs was that a request fell outside their legitimate scope of work (5 RCCs vs. 1 CC). CCs reported more concerns with the requests fitting the Center's priorities (2 of the 4 CCs that turned down work vs. 2 of the 10 RCCs) or the Center's capacity (2 of the 4 CCs that turned down work vs. 2 of the 10 RCCs).

The Centers placed a priority on assistance with the state role in supporting improvement in struggling schools and districts. In every year of the evaluation, on the inventories completed by Centers that grouped their technical assistance activities into projects and categorized projects into 23 topics, the most common topic for all Center projects was "components of effective systems of support—state, district, school," a topic that included but was not limited to statewide systems of support and school support teams. Among all projects on the Center's inventories, 19 percent in 2006–07, 25 percent in 2007–08, and 21 percent in 2008–09 addressed the topic of systems of support, which in each year was more than twice as many as any other topic.

Although the two types of Centers each retained a focus on activities distinctly associated with the original program design, their ways of working became more similar over the years. The guidance given by ED through the Center grant competition and afterwards laid out a particular structure for the Centers' work: RCCs would specialize in interactions with state clients while CCs would specialize in activities that required a content focus. The most common activity found in sampled RCC projects was "ongoing consultation and follow up" (82 percent in 2006–07; 93 percent in 2007–08; 91 percent in 2008–09); in CC projects, it was "research collections and synthesis" (74 percent in 2006–07, 85 percent in 2007–08, and 77 percent in 2008–09), while fewer RCC projects included this activity (53 or 54 percent in each year) (exhibit ES.1). In 2008–09, in a departure from past CC practice, a majority of sampled CC projects (62 percent) included ongoing consultation and follow-up.

The delivery of technical assistance depended on the Centers working effectively with their clients. Both RCCs and CCs described the barriers they perceived as having impeded their assistance to states. Turnover in staff within state offices or intermediary units was reported by both types of Centers as a barrier to achieving their objectives in assisting states (10 of 16 RCCs and 3 of 5 CCs). Turnover at the leadership level was a reported barrier for 8 RCCs and 3 CCs. Three of the 5 CCs reported "a state's most important priorities for assistance fell outside the Center's scope of work," as a barrier; they indicated that some states wanted help with topics that went beyond their own assigned substantive focus.

Under the two-tiered Center program design, RCCs and CCs were expected to work together to serve state clients. Among RCC projects, 48 percent had a CC contribution (of materials, in-person assistance, or advice) in 2006–07, 32 percent in 2007–08, and 47 percent in 2008–09. Among CC projects, the percent incorporating some RCC contribution was 37 percent, 38 percent, and 42 percent across the years. The extent to which RCCs and CCs drew on the other as substantive partners in delivering assistance increased in 2008–09: the percent of sampled RCC projects in which CCs delivered technical assistance went up from 18 percent in 2006–07 to 30 percent in 2008–09, and the percent of sampled CC projects in which the RCCs delivered technical assistance rose from 11 percent in 2006–07 to 38 percent in 2008–09.

With 16 RCCs and 5 CCs all charged with working with the other type of Center, coordination varied across the different pairs of an RCC and a CC. For example, while 15 of the 16 RCCs reported teaming up with at least one CC to provide technical assistance to states, 14 of them reported teaming up with one of the CCs but 7 of them reported doing so with another of the CCs. In addition, CCs were expected to provide assistance to RCCs, and the barrier most often reported by both types of centers to have impeded CCs' achievement of their technical assistance objectives with RCCs was that "RCCs' most important priorities for assistance fell outside the CC's scope of work" (reported as a barrier by 7 of 16 RCCs and 4 of 5 CCs).