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REL Northeast & Islands’ Governing Board Reflects on How to Turn Innovation into Evidence-based Practice

Northeast & Islands | August 31, 2023

Northeast & Islands' Governing Board Members at event

In May, our REL Northeast & Islands team had the wonderful opportunity to convene our first in-person Governing Board meeting since before the pandemic. I know I speak for our entire team when I say how refreshing it was to spend time with and discuss our ongoing work with board members. The theme for our meeting was "Innovation to Evidence-based Practice." Below, I'll share some takeaways from our conversations over the two-day event. But first, I'd like to share a little bit about our Governing Board, how we collaborate with our members, and how they support and inform our work.

What does the REL Northeast & Islands Governing Board do?

The REL Northeast & Islands Governing Board is composed of 27 state, district, and school leaders from across all nine of our states and jurisdictions. Members serve from various areas of educational leadership, including state commissioners of education, board of education directors, community organization leaders, academic researchers, and superintendents, among others. Authorized by the Education Sciences Reform Act, the Governing Board is charged with overseeing the programmatic work of REL Northeast & Islands.

Our team meets with our Governing Board members two times per year. In advance of these meetings, members of our leadership team prepare an agenda filled with panel presentations, breakout groups, and brainstorming sessions to solicit feedback on our project and partnership work. We also build in time for in-depth discussions and collaboration around the priorities and interest areas of board members.

In addition to attending our biannual meetings, Governing Board members also serve as advisors, partnership members, and content experts. Some examples of board member contributions include participating in partnership meetings or activities, reviewing research designs or technical assistance and coaching project materials, or engaging in conversations with our region leadership to identify needs within their state or jurisdiction.

Our Spring 2023 Meeting: From Innovation to Evidence-based Practice

Michael Horn presenting the keynote speech at the REL Governing Board Meeting

Michael Horn presenting the keynote speech at the REL Governing Board Meeting

Across our two-day meeting, each session focused on the important relationship between innovation and evidence, particularly in the current post-pandemic education landscape. Our meeting's keynote speaker, Michael Horn, presented his thoughts on how to build an evidence base for innovative instructional approaches. During his talk, he emphasized the importance of examining the underlying assumptions on which innovative work is based and testing these assumptions along the way. In his model for rethinking policy priorities for the future of education, Horn reflected on the need to reconsider current funding models for education and how we assess students in a way that empowers students and prioritizes learning rather than time spent in school. To check out Michael Horn's full keynote speech, watch our recording.

Every table talk was filled with thoughtful insights and interesting reflections from our keynote speaker and staff presentations. However, one of my favorite topics came from our Governing Board members as they pointed out the difference between "big I" and "little i" innovation. "Big I" Innovation refers to something totally new—like a new service or program—whereas "little i" innovation refers to the smaller-scale fine-tuning or iteration of a program or service.

Board members discussed how innovation is happening every day in big and small ways across the field of education. For example, a multi-grade teacher in a small rural school must "little i" innovate to maximize student learning. As they come to understand more about the needs and learning styles of each student, the teacher adapts their instructional techniques to provide tailored supports for these students.

Meanwhile, board members also described instances of "big I" Innovation happening in districts and states. For example, one panel presentation from Maine focused on their work to support Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures. Through this initiative, districts are receiving funding to support innovative education initiatives and remote learning models. Another panel presentation from Massachusetts focused on the High-Quality Instructional Materials initiative to support schools and districts in using evidence to evaluate instructional materials and select those that best fit their local context. Through this "big I" Innovation effort, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has made concerted efforts to identify the types of evidence-based curricular materials that best support all students—in particular students who have been historically underserved.

What struck me most across all our conversations was, no matter the innovation type, the consensus of our group was to focus on student outcomes—which is at the heart of the innovation. Once these outcomes are in clear sight, the pathways through which innovation can occur and the conditions under which it can happen become much clearer. Two other essential components to innovation—no matter the grain size—are reflection and replication. Whether this is achieved through data analysis or professional learning, it is imperative to understand which outcomes were attributable to the innovation as well as the conditions required to replicate the effect. This reflection is essential to bring innovation to scale.

On behalf of the entire REL Northeast & Islands team, I want to thank our Governing Board members for their attendance and continued collaboration.


Heather Lavigne

Heather Lavigne

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